Prog. Rock: the science fiction of music?

It’s been an interesting start to 2019 and even though we are only a few days into the new-year, I have already committed to speaking at two exciting conferences. The first is in May for the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM) biennial conference to be held in Canberra. Last September I spoke at the joint IASPM and Art of Record Production (ARP) conference at the University of Huddersfield, UK. I delivered my presentation titled, ‘I’ll mix this my own way: why millennial musicians still need a producer’, to an enthusiastic audience of academics and practitioners. Due to this positive reception, I intend developing this theme further for IASPM in Canberra. I will propose that musicians still need producers but the role of producer is redefining itself to jive with the modern context of music production. Through technological socialism, the traditional gatekeeper role of the record producer is now redundant but their advanced skills in critical listening, mentorship, advice giving, arrangement, facilities management and keeping egos in check is still vital. So, it seems, the record producer is not out of a job just yet and is unlikely to be so, even if there is less money to spend on record production. Bands of musicians are an on-going argument and a producer is perfectly positioned to make sure that the band is arguing about their music. Ultimately a producer is the person that gets the recording made.

After IASPM in Canberra I will be heading north to Griffiths University on the Sunshine Coast to talk about progressive rock and aging musicians. I hold the view that progressive rock is the science fiction of music. The central theme of science fiction is that it speculates on what the future might be, what it will look like and how we might get there; but there is always an underlying theme of humanity embedded within it. As a producer that came to my fore during the post-punk era in the UK, it would appear to be a disconnected subject for me to pontificate on. Let me elucidate. The organisers of the conference had heard me speak in Huddersfield and had also read the obituary piece that I wrote about Keith Emerson of ELP and The Nice; ‘The Dr Who Of Rock ‘n’ Roll’.

I’d worked with Keith Emerson in 2002 as his tour manager and his de-facto go-to guy; that’s how I earned my living back then. However, my connection to Keith goes way back to a childhood in Hull, East Yorkshire. My hippie parents, Karl and Jenny, always had a very eclectic taste in music. I remember in 1972 my parents playing the Emerson Lake and Palmer album Pictures At An Exhibition in heavy rotation with other wired and wonderful tunes. As a ten year old I found this a very difficult piece of music to comprehend. Indeed any ten year old that could fully fathom the testosterone fuelled butchery of this classic Mussorsky piece would probably be painfully precocious and end up pursuing a career as a popular music academic later on in life. But lets give credit where its due because ELP’s iteration has become one of the seminal documents of the progressive rock era, a record that made its way into the collections of millions of high-school kids who had never heard of Modest Mussorgsky and knew nothing of Russia’s Nationalist ‘Five’. At the time, it introduced the new genre of classical rock to millions of listeners, including the classical community, most of whose members regarded this record as something akin to an armed violent assault. What really stuck in my mind from this record was track four, a short original Moog synthesiser interlude, which was never part of the original Mussorsky template. Little did my parents know they were hegmonically pre-programming me to love synth-based music that would stay with me for life. Philip Larkin was right about parents.

Keith Emerson

My second direct encounter was working with Saddlewoth Moor’s finest purveyors of progressive rock; Barclay James Harvest. BJH was, for many years, one of the most hard luck outfits in progressive rock. A quartet of solid rock musicians consisting of John Lees (guitar & vocals), Les Holroyd, (bass & vocals), Stuart ‘Wooly’ Wolstenholme (keyboards & vocals) fondly remembered Mel Pritchard (RIP) on drums. With a knack for writing hook-laden songs built on pretty melodies, they harmonized like the Beatles and wrote extended songs with more of a beat than the Moody Blues. They were signed to EMI at the same time as Pink Floyd, and both bands moved over to the company’s progressive rock-oriented Harvest Records imprint, yet somehow, they never managed to connect with the public for a major hit in England, much less America. In 2002, with the release of Revolution Days, I found myself touring Europe’s arenas with BJH promoting this record to a very enthusiastic audience of middle-aged parents, and rather, confusingly their offspring. This was an interesting four-year period of my life mixing 30-year-old BJH songs for their original and new audiences.

Barclay James Harvest

As an engineer/producer, with what is fast approaching 40 years of professional experience, I’ve always been fascinated by the theories of simulacrum and hyperreality and the diaspora between the studio recording and their recreation live on stage. When Jean Baudrillard (1981) defined the term ‘Simulacrum’, he was seeking to examine the relationship among reality, symbols and society. Hyperreality is seen as a condition in which what is real and what is fiction are seamlessly blended together so that there is no clear distinction between where one ends and the other begins. Both of these theories appear to be pertinent tools of analysis that can be critically applied to both Keith Emerson and BJH. Putting theory into practice if-you-like. As an art form born in the mid-twentieth century, progressive rock music has an integral relationship with both the hyper-real and simulacrum. Live instrumental techniques combined with sample libraries and synthesizers, in addition to recording techniques and sound processors, creates music that transcends traditional Western music frameworks. The synthesizer as an audio tool affords the power to generate science fiction music that utilizes the whole sound spectrum. Synthesizers become a powerful tool for the transmission of meaning through sonic channels, widening the gap between music reality and hyperreality. With both BJH and Keith Emerson I’ve relished the challenge of recreating previously curated material and bring it into a sharp, high definition focus for modern day audiences.

With both of these forthcoming conferences I can’t wait to share my thoughts and experiences on the subject progressive rock. I believe that my hands-on practical experience coupled with academic/scholarly contextualization and analysis is unique and will provide a stimulating presentation for the audience. Science fiction is a great opportunity to speculate and imagine what could happen. I love the idea that prog. rock is the sci-fi of the music world.

I am available for lectures, workshops, tutorials master class , conferences and broadcasts just drop me an email to Touringtim@aol.com

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We Car A Lot

Nothing brings Nietzsche’s theory of death consciousness into sharp focus like an un-expected death of a close friend or relative. On Saturday morning I awoke to the tragic news that original Faith No More front man Chuck Mosley had died at the age of 57. I first met Chuck and the rest of Faith No More when I was employed as their tour manger, sound engineer, driver and companion on their first European tour back in 1988. At the time I was a 25-year-old hot shot, up and coming tour manger/sound engineer with lots of connections. Two days before meeting the band for the first time, I received a panicked early morning phone call from Faith No More’s booking agent, Derek, in London. There was a massive cock-up. The band were in mid-flight on the ‘red-eye’ from California to London Heathrow (LHR) airport with no one there to meet them on their first tour of the UK and Europe. Luckily I cleared my schedule, jumped in a van for a five-hour drive to LHR to meet a band I’ve never even heard of, never mind seen, before. Obviously the agency was not making Faith No More a very high priority at this point in their career.

Initially there was some slapstick hilarity at the airport when I mistook a vicar with a school choir for Faith No More. The ‘Faith’ bit confused me as I thought they might be religious, thank God they weren’t. Confusion rectified and I am en-route to the infamous Columbia rock ‘n’ roll Hotel on London’s Bayswater road with the band. The following day, January 22nd 1988, Faith No More (FNM) hit the United Kingdom live scene for the first time. The tiny venue was Dingwalls in Camden, London. It was in fact the first time FNM had played outside of the United States. This show was the first date of a European tour that ended seven months later in July that year. I did not know it at the time but it was to be Chuck Mosley’s last tour with the FNM as he and the band would part ways shorty after the tour ended.

Those seven months on the first FNM tour was hard work, but fun. I watched the band develop musically and creatively while devouring the sights and sounds of Europe. As with any bunch of mid-twenty year olds cooped up for long periods of time in a van and cramped cheap hotels there were disagreements, jokes, name-calling, practical jokes, happiness, homesickness and not much sleep. We played every small live music toilet venue going and built a loyal fan base. The process of commodification had begun Faith No More were going through the process of turning an un-known band into a global brand. In business speak the band’s early fans were their investors. Even at this preliminary stage I could see the small cracks appearing between this diaspora of individual band co-creators. Each member of the band had a different version of the ‘finished’ FNM product. Chuck took the most hedonistic and reckless view; to him this was all very punk rock. It might not last long, so lets have some fun and lots of it.

With Chuck, drugs and alcohol fuelled a big part in his reckless enjoyment on this first tour. He enjoyed the different cultures of each country we visited and survived those long endless drives in the cramped old van with raucous good humour. As with any bunch of strong willed individuals brought together in very confined spaces in unusual circumstances there was going to be friction. One of the reasons for this tour was to “stress test the product” and check its integrity before a full commitment of investment was made by the international record company. Ultimately this ‘beta test’ product failed the stress test because by the end of the tour in July the tiny fractures were now full-blown canyons. Tension between all band members was high but especially so between guitarist Jim Martin and Chuck Mosley. I remember a huge fistfight between these two at Zurich airport, which finished with them on the baggage carousel, resulting in Jim breaking a couple of fingers. From this point onwards Chuck’s day with Faith No More were numbered. Upon their return to the USA, and the start of their third studio album ‘The Real Thing’, Chuck was unceremoniously fired. 

Paul Simon famously sang, rather insipidly, that there are fifty ways to leave a lover but this is pure song writing shtick, there are actually only two. The first is to realise that there is a problem and that the relationship is troublesome, dysfunctional, has probably run its course and is over. Time for both parities to be honest with each other, explicate the issues in a mature, rational and kindly fashion and then depart with everyone’s dignity intact. Or you could do it the Chuck Mosley way by behaving with increasing self-indulgent discourtesy, twattery and bellendry until everyone around looses their patience and ditches you. This method, normally perused semi-wittingly by people not entirely certain with what they want from life, has the bonus of subsequently allowing the person to feel self–righteously aggrieved by the sacking, almost as if it wasn’t their fault. Mosley sued Faith No More after his firing, claiming a partnership stake in the band, and they settled out of court.

After that, Mosley spent a couple of years singing for a later version of the legendary hard-core band Bad Brains (1990 to 1992). He also formed the funk-metal band Cement and released a couple of albums in the mid-’90s. From time to time I’d run into Chuck, who was always polite, courteous and he appeared genuinely pleased to see me. We’d often chat backstage or in a hotel bar over a few beers. After Chuck’s departure, Faith No More would continue morphing into a global commodity with further sacking and replacements until they achieved global recognition with the 1992 album Angel Dust, which sold by the truckload. I survived until the Phoenix Festival on 20th July 1997 when I was asked/told to move on. Almost a decade with a band is a long time, probably too long. Over the years, Chuck released a few solo albums, and he even reunited with Faith No More for two shows in 2015.

Chuck2
Chuck recently played so solo shows around the USA

It’s difficult not to sound like a know-it-all smart ass, but the music industry is a very difficult and emotional place to work. Duty of care is an alien concept. In the pursuit of sales the body count is high. In 2015, Help Musicians commissioned the first global academic research into musicians and mental health, which was done in conjunction with the University of Westminster and MusicTank. This academic report looked at the whole gamut of health issues within the music industry. Through this report it became very obvious that mental health issues was a continuing growing issue in the music industry. Many organisations are now discussing ways of trying to end the stigma by encouraging musicians, and those in the industry, to come forward and talk about their challenges. This report highlighted that musicians are three times more likely to suffer from mental health issues, depression or anxiety than other professions. This is coupled with lack of sleep, poor and sporadic salaries, failed relationships, disrupted lifestyles, imposter syndrome and a whole gambit of other related issues. If you consider Paul Manning’s normalisation theory, as defined in his 2007 book ‘Drugs and Popular Culture’ to hold true (I do), then we also have to contend with the fact that the music industry is a place where drugs and alcohol are totally acceptable/encouraged. If we also factor in the psychoanalytical theory of Imago, we are in very dangerous territory. Chuck fought his demons courageously to the end with a great support network of family and friends around him. Addiction is a complex disease of the brain and body that involves compulsive use of one or more substances despite serious health and social consequences. He’d spent the last decade fighting very hard to maintain his sobriety. With such a strong personality, I am sure that Chuck’s cognitive dissonance kicked in hard one last time late last week.

As I read in the Brooklyn Vegan on Saturday, “We’re sharing the manner in which he passed, in the hopes that it might serve as a warning or wake up call or beacon to anyone else struggling to fight for sobriety. He is survived by long-term partner Pip Logan, two daughters, Erica and Sophie and his grandson Wolfgang Logan Mosley. The family will be accepting donations for funeral expenses.

Chuck1
Charley Henry Mosley III

I’ve read lots of press recently about the dangers of suicide in young male adults but I believe that there is another serious problem looming with the 50 to 60 years olds. Especially those from high profile careers in music, entertainment and sport; but that’s another blog post.

It was an absolute pleasuring knowing and working with you Charles Henry Mosley III, may you rest in peace. 

An Open Space For Creativity and Collaboration

I love the work I do so much that it doesn’t actually feel like work at all. My Linkedin page describes me as a “solution architect” and “knowledge broker” but that’s only a small part of what I do. As someone who has worked in the international music industry for the last 38 years, and the higher education creative arts sector for the last 24 years, I am required to solve problems on a regular basis. A few weeks ago I was involved in a meeting with a couple of high-ranking academic mangers from an international creative higher education institution. They had correctly identified that the traditional siloed approach to “teaching” the creative arts was not particularly productive, nor was it creative and that collaborative working between different creative disciplines was the way forward. Bravo, problem correctly identified but that is the easy part. Now comes the really hard part; how to make creative students from different siloed disciplines work in collaboration? A classic Vladimir Propp ‘dispatcher’ scenario instilled in me, now go forth and solve that problem.

I am a big believer that the most dangerous eight words in any institution, enterprise or organisation are, “we have always done it this way before”. So I find myself in a meeting of educators from various different creative disciplines, e.g. film, design, audio, games programming, etc. to solve the problem of how to initiate and foster greater collaboration between these creative silos. It immediately becomes apparent that it’s not only the students that are not working collaboratively but neither are the staff. Indeed each ‘department’ was more that happy to be working within their own discipline with hardly any positive noises been made by anyone in the room towards full and meaningful collaborative work. Creativity by its very nature is a deviance from those unquestioned norms. Having a position outside the mainstream can facilitate one’s questioning of accepted practices and everyday modes of thought. I was shocked that a room full of creative minds was so closed to change. Maybe it’s an age problem; I am a 54 year old who grew out of the post punk art school movement in the UK. Deviance comes as second nature to me. This is not the first time in my professional career that I had stumbled into what Irving Goffman (1957) termed the “total institution”.

Osram
Osram’s cutting edge open plan Munich office in 1957

I do not think that my learned colleagues had correctly diagnosed the problem. It’s virtually impossible to make students work on collaborative projects if the teaching staff can’t or won’t work collaboratively. In the same way that you can’t force people to love one another, you can’t force them to work collaboratively. The way to solve this problem is to get the teaching staff working collaboratively first; a classic case of some silo busting needs to be done. Traditional thinking here would suggest that a large open plan office housing the chalk face academic staff would result in collaborative approach. Not in this case. Each creative silo occupies one row each in a large open space. Just because a colleague sits within a PC’s throw away from the next, doesn’t mean they are going to talk to each other. Close proximity doesn’t generate productivity or collaboration nor is it conducive to creativity.

As a devout modernist you would think that I adore the concept of the open plan office. Ironically, it was a team of 1950s German modernists from Hamburg that conceived the open plan office to better facilitate communication and ideas flow. This new movement was termed Burolandschaft (office landscaping). But a growing body of evidence suggests that the standardisation of the open office undermines the purpose that it was designed to achieve. It’s my view that modern open plan office is a hegemonic device used to supress deviance and foster worker compliance. The problem here is that by its definition, great creative, collaborative work is by its very nature deviant in both form and content. It does not conform to established traditions in the field. Recent evidence published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology (Jungsoo. K, 2013) from a study of more than 40,000 workers in 300 U.S. office buildings, by far the most comprehensive research on this issue, came to the following conclusion, “Enclosed private offices clearly outperformed open-plan layouts in most aspects of IEQ (Indoor Environmental Quality), particularly in acoustics, privacy and the proxemics issues. Benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration.” Research journals love to use jargon but don’t let the jargon confuse you. The term “proxemics issues” refers to how people feel uncomfortable when they’re forced into close proximity with other people. In this case all the creative academics are stabled in a huge open plan office that resembles a call centre sweatshop rather than a highly creative space of voluntary collaboration.

The big issue here is one of physical creative space. One of the most important ingredients for an effective collaborative circle is a magnet place such as a pub (I spent an awful lot of time in pubs in the 1980s and 90s “working”) these days its more likely to be a café/coffee shop, corner shop, or even a lawn or garden; so long as it’s a place where group members can freely come together with each other to discuss new ideas and to talk and argue (constructively) about their work. A second key ingredient is for group members to have time away from the mainstream, time to look at issues and ideas from new perspectives without mental or social pressure to conform to accepted norms and attitudes. In the words of the inventor of lateral thinking, Edward de Bono, “Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way”. The blunt tool of management dictates, “you will work in collaboration”, will never be effective here in a similar fashion to the fabulous dialogue from Dr Strangelove (1964), “Gentlemen you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room”. In 2011, organisational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than a hundred studies about office environments. Davis found that although open-plan offices often fostered a positive symbolic sense of organisational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were extremely damaging to the inhabitant’s attention spans, productivity, satisfaction but most importantly their creative thinking. A more intelligent, less obvious, critical and creative approach needs to be taken here.

Last month saw Apple Inc. unveil two new sleek and very expensive iPhones in their brand new Steve Jobs Theatre, housed in the $6.2 AUS billon dollar campus Apple Park. According to the theatre’s architect, Stefan Behling of Foster and Partners, it is “a building which is pushing social behaviour in the way people work to new limits”. Behling identified that creative people work best in a space which is not a beige, standardised open plan office space. As discussed at the start of this article, Behling’s approach to design has its roots in Modernism. In 1896 the essay, The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered by the founding father of skyscrapers Louis Sullivan stated that the loftiness of skyscrapers is to be “on a high road to natural and satisfying art”. Just like other Modernist ideas such as Socialism, the building of utopia is great but it’s intrinsically difficult. People in general, and creative types specifically, do not enjoy collisions, or having their social behaviour pushed. You can lead a creative to another but you can’t force them to work together.

Revolutionary painter Henri Mattise once said “Creativity takes courage”. To go back to the original problem highlighted earlier in this article, rather than forcing creative people to work collaboratively why not manufacture the physical and social conditions conducive to creative collaborations? This requires a fundamental change to the working conditions at this institution. The big problem here is that they have just undertaken a very costly multi million-dollar campus renovation and my solution to this systemic issue is somewhat challenging (they often are). Despite all the investment, open plan offices invariably fall short of the mark because they negatively affect workers’ satisfaction with their physical environment and perceived productivity. The main complaints often include: noise and lack of privacy. Cramming people one on top of the other is probably the human equivalent of battery hens, the egg gets laid but the chickens are far from being happy. By my direct observations the desks in this institution’s open plan office are only occupied for a fraction of time each day. People turn up in the morning and use their desk to check email or more likely their social media and dump their personal artefacts. I would argue that a specific dedicated desk is not conducive to creative or collaborative working. Indeed, in this institution most collaboration takes place around the lunch table or in the tiny, uninspiring and unventilated kitchen.

Creative Office Interior Design
The BBC’s version of creative office interior design

Here’s my solution. Close the car park and give everyone an interest free 12-month loan to buy a bicycle. My premise here is the more you drive the less intelligent and more isolated you become. Allocate everyone a specific locker and make all desks, including managements’, ‘hot desks’. When staff arrive to work they can source a desk, if needed, but make sure all workspaces are connected either with a computer or capable of accommodating your own (BYO) devices. The apotheosis is “activity based working”, an approach pioneered in the mid 1990s by Dutch consulting firm Veldhoen. Rather than sitting in one space staff should move around different zones during the working day working normally, focusing quietly, or collaborating or even indulging in total isolation.

We also need to accept and understand that creative types don’t all exhibit the same behaviours or work in similar patters. Lets create better physical space to exploit this? Most creative collaboration requires constant moving from communal discussions to individual focus and back again. Kill the open place office and provide a variety of stimulating spaces that people will naturally gravitate to depending on their activity as opposed to their specific creative discipline. I call this activity based working. Rather than forcing creatives to work collaboratively let’s try to re-engineer human behaviours through inspiring work spaces. Forced marriages have been known to work occasionally but the best ones are where people meet and fall in love.  

Now would be a fantastic time for institutions to stop using collaboration as the main driver for open-plan offices. Let’s be honest and realistic, although open-plan offices may have started out as well-intentioned Modernist collaborative experiment, these days they exist purely for economic reasons. It is far easier to cram twenty desks into a single space than construct some highly creative and stimulating creative paces. My main point here is that you cannot force collaboration onto anyone who doesn’t want to collaborate. Simply put, some individuals have their own style of “collaborating” and should be left to their own devices. My intuitive guess is if the teaching staff initiate collaborative projects of their own accord then student collaborative projects will follow. My ultimate solution for effective collaboration at higher education institutions is to devise a creative space that encourages and facilitates student and staff from all previously siloed disciplines to share, discuss, debate and collaborate on meaningful creative projects together.

TimDalton2014

 

I am available for guest lectures, workshops, master classes, conferences and panels; simply drop me a line with your request and I’ll get back to you.

The Tour Down Under 2014

This is an article that I wrote for UK cycling quarterly magazine ‘Spin Cycle’ (www.spincyclemag.com/content/issue-7) about the 2014 Tour Down Under in Adelaide.

It’s almost a year since I left Europe for a different life down under. Moving from Liverpool to Melbourne was a huge decision, especially being a life long cyclist and leaving the European cycling scene behind. To be honest the only thing I miss in Melbourne is the proximity to European cycling mainly Belgium, France and Mallorca. It was all too easy living in Liverpool, jumping a cheap flight to the mainland to watch races in Europe or loading up the car with bikes and heading to Dover for the Belgium Spring Classics. Living in Melbourne, Australia the European cycling scene is over a day away and is also cost prohibitive. Indeed being in Melbourne is like doing cold turkey to break the continental cycling addiction. Don’t get me wrong Melbourne does cycling but it’s cycling as the new golf, cycling for the Armstrong generation. Cyclists pedal up and down the flat Beach Road for espressos on their $15k Italian bikes, with deep section carbon wheels, head to toe in Assos, all essential for that 20km Saturday ride. With this in mind, I am heading to Adelaide to get my first European cycling ‘fix’ in over a year, the Santos Tour Down Under, but will it be up to scratch?

Having visited Adelaide many times in my previous music business life, this trip was going to be an interesting one. With modest expectations I grabbed a low cost Friday evening flight, the businessman’s shuttle, for the 1-hour journey to South Australia. As I arrive at Adelaide International Airport, I’m struggling to break through the sea of grey suited office drones and wage slaves. The Santos Tour Down Under is the first event of the 2014 UCI Pro World Tour calendar. Santos is Australia’s biggest gas supplier; they need the publicity to sell more gas, as most Aussies do not need the warmth of gas central heating. This event is in its 16th year and becomes more popular with riders and fans each passing year. It appears everyone has Tour Down Under fever, even the airport is full of cycling related bike junk presented as ‘sculptures’, gaudy plastered images of past TDU winners on the walls and then of course there are the omnipresent skinny, shaved leg, Oakley’s on top of head brigade hanging about for no apparent reason. Most of the pro teams have been here for a couple of weeks all ready to escape the clutches of the northern hemisphere’s winter weather. Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler came and rode for ten minutes, crashed into a car and broke his collarbone and went home for treatment. A 54 hour round trip for a 10-minute bike ride, this sport is cruel. Of course the cruel irony of the weather pattern is that South Australia is in a severe heat wave with temperatures hitting 51 degrees. Perouse Twitter and the pro peloton are all moans and groans about hitting the road at 6am to get 4 hours in before the temperatures make training impossible. It’s nice to have these first world problems.

This 16th edition of the Santos Tour Down Under formally kicks off on Tuesday 21st January and runs until Sunday 26th January, covering a total of 875 kilometers. This race covers beautiful countryside including the famous wine regions of the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and the Adelaide Hills, with reputably over 200 cellar doors within one hour’s drive of Adelaide. This area is a foodies delight with the irony being that none of the pro peloton will be partaking. My initial concerns about this race are immediately proved to be unwarranted. The immediate area around Adelaide is a super location for an international bike race. Roads are wide, well surface and sparsely populated with traffic. The towns and villages en-route all support the race. No Daily Mail reactionaries here complaining about paying road tax and not having access to the public highway for 15 minutes of the year like in the UK. The amount of cycling fans out on the route is amazing; I didn’t think Australia had this many cyclists. Speaking to the roadside Tifosi at various points it obvious that there are people here from all over this continent sized country. The Tifosi come in all shapes, sizes, colours and varieties, its great to see so many people out on bike. The Aussies love sport, this is a great sporting nation, and they cheer every single pro rider, they cheer the cycling policemen and they cheer each other. The countryside is classic storybook pretty; it is dappled in light, dotted with quaint villages and bustling towns. The stunning views from the Adelaide Hills and big blue skies take your breath away. Acre after acre of vineyards and orchards over gentle rolling hills and with fields full of the prettiest cattle you’ll ever see. While waiting for the race I was serenaded by Galahs, Cockatoos, Lorakeets and Rozellas. One day I even met a field full of fluffy headed alpacas. The hills aren’t in the league of the Ventoux or Alpe d’Huez but Willung Hill (3km long) The Corkscrew (2km long) and Menglers Hill (2km long), nothing over 600 metres in height here, are effective in splitting the peloton especially if climbed twice or towards the end of the stage.

To get things started, there is the stand alone People’s Choice city center criterium on the evening of Sunday 19th January. The TDU race schedule gives the riders a day off on Monday 20th which facilitates a chat between Andy Fenn of the Omega Pharma Quick Step team and Spin Cycle. We met with Andy at the Hilton Hotel race HQ to discuss the life of a professional UCI World Tour team professional. This is Andy’s first Tour Down Under and he’s quietly confident. Sprinters are normally the exuberant, flamboyant type; think Mario Cipollini, Mark Cavendish, Tom Steels or Alessandro Petacchi. Andy breaks the mold as he is modest but also aware of his considerable talent, accepting that a rider has to improve in increments to reach cycling’s heights. Andy’s mother is Scottish so he’ll be riding for Scotland at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this summer, one of his main goals for this season.

Come on be honest, who doesn’t dream of landing a cushy job as a professional cyclist on a top UCI world tour team, riding top spec bikes, travelling the world and sharing the prize money? After all you only work a few months out of the year and it’s hardly the daily grind is it? Andy finished his 2013 season at the Tour of China on 30th September and it’s been a busy winter sorting the shizzles. After been based in Belgium for the past three years, Andy made the move to Lucca in Italy to be with his celebrity cycling girlfriend. Originally from Kent in the UK, Andy was billeted in Belgium with the support of the Dave Rayner fund; Andy’s apprenticeship was done the hard old-fashioned way. Long-term mentor, friend, ex-professional and 1989 GB Pro road race champion, Tim Harris, assisted Andy in this epic move. Tim playing the Dean Moriarty character to Andy’s Sal Paradise on the 30-hour road trip across Europe in Tim’s old furniture van. A transcript and Spotify playlist of that Kerouac-est on the road journey would have made interesting reading and listening. Could this move be read as a sign of maturity as, 24-year-old Andy puts down some roots with a loved one?

Italy also opens up other possibilities in terms of better weather, terrain and training partners, namely seasoned pro Steve Cummings. “Now I live in Tuscany, an area that I love and that I’ve known since I was an amateur. There, I’ll also have the chance to train with professionals of the calibre of Petacchi, from whom I can learn a lot”. Omega Pharma Quick Step obviously have faith in Andy signing him in 2011 from the An Post Team and keeping him in 2014 when many good pros are looking for work. Andy, who in 2008 won the junior version of Paris-Roubaix, loves the Italian lifestyle. “I like the language and I absolutely want to learn to cook Italian food, especially pizza, which I sometimes try to make at home.” 2013 did not bring great satisfaction to the British talent, but he’s ready to make up for it. “My goal is to work hard to reach a good level, gain experience through the right mix of races, and, last but not least, taste the joy of victory again.” Andy looked slim and fit, but somewhat pale due to winter weather of Europe when we met up with him. Clothed in OPQS casual sports wear he doesn’t look out of place even with Marcel Kittle sat opposite us doing his own rock star styled interview.

Sprinter Andy is here at the TDU as support to newly signed team leader, and former TDF maillot jaune wearer, Jan Bakelants. But isn’t the TDU just a Koala cuddling, glorified pre season training camp with corny photo opportunities, where the local Aussie riders humiliate the European pros just awakening from their winter hibernation? Andy is keen to point out this is not the case any more and that the TDU carries the same amount of UCI points as winning Paris Roubaix or fifth place in the Tour de France. Teams come here “primed and ready to ride” according to Andy. The aptly named old school, ex-pro, no nonsense Belgium OPQS team manager, Rik van Slycke, is looking at the form of his riders at the TDU with an eye for the spring classic and the grand tours later this year. Andy’s first grand tour, the Vuelta last year, didn’t exactly go to plan. Eliminated on stage 10 for holding onto the team car for a bit to long, lessons were learnt, but at this stage of his career its all a learning curve.

I’m sure us wage salves are all too familiar with key performance indicators, performance related pay and impressing the boss, so no different here then you assume? You may think that rest days for cyclists are all about sitting around drinking espresso, Skype calls to girlfriends back in Europe and deciding which exotic sports car to buy. Not for Andy, we met him at 3pm and he’s been up since 6am on his day off. At 7:30am he was out on bike with a peloton of 50 Aussie Specialized dealers for a couple of hours followed by a meet and greet to help sell those bikes. The brand is desperate to re-ingratiate itself with the general cycling public after Roubaix Gate late last year. This is followed by: lunch, then an afternoon of team media duties, which includes talking to me, an afternoon massage, team meeting about the TDU racing strategy, with finally an evening meal at 8:00pm with everyone in bed at 10:00pm sharp.

Race day and Andy is up and eating breakfast three hours before the 11:00am start, where the course is an hour’s drive away. Gone are the luxuries of racing in Europe such as rock ‘n’ roll style team busses. At the TDU, its one Skoda estate car and a humble Hyundai mini bus for all teams, all except Team Sky who seem to have their own rules when it comes to cars, they drive Jaguar team cars, and have three of them. All riders and teams arrive on the start line at 10:00am for signing on and the chaos of the daily media scrum. The races rolls out at 11:00am sharp for a few kilometers of neutralized riding, which allows for those final nature stops (and commissaries’ fines) before the race starts proper at the zero km board. Once the neutralized flag is pulled in it’s the same story every day; the local ‘pro’ outfit go on the attack to gain the vital publicity they need to continue in business. There’s no need to worry though that attack won’t last and the Euro pros just keep it in check until they are ready to reel it in.

With day one complete, the OPQS rider Carlos Verona Quintanilla is in the best young rider jersey. No need for a sprinter over the next few days, so Andy and the team’s work is all about protecting that jersey. You know the score here, fetching, carrying bidons and food, riding in the wind and all the day-to-day routine things all that are similar to chores we have to do in our own jobs? Finesse Carlos to the bottom of the final climb, in Andy’s case, and then find that ‘laughing group’ to ride with to the finish. Stage one and Andy rolls in with the gruppeto in 86th place 2:21 down on winner Simon Gerrans but with Carlos securely in the young rider jersey. Stage two sees rising start Diego Ulissi takes the win with Andy 130th 9:10 down. Stage three and Cadel Evans drops the entire peloton on the climb of the Corkscrew with Andy rolling in 6:55 down in 110th place. Andre Greipel takes stage four, the first of his two TDU stage wins, with the bunch split into two almost equal sized groups on the Myponga climb close to the Victor Harbor finish. Andy is in the second group in 132nd place 13:55 down on Greipel. Stage five sees the race climb the famous Willunga Hill twice with the finish at the summit on the 2nd pass. Richie Porte is a very convincing winner here with Andy in 110th place 11:32 down on Porte. The final 85km street race in Adelaide, around a 4.5km circuit, sees our first proper bunch sprint with Andy in third place, a fantastic result. Overall our man Andy is 116th 43:50 down on one-second winner Simon Gerrans from Cadel Evans.

Those daily time gaps don’t tell the full story though, Rik is happy, Andy is happy and the team is happy, it’s a job that has to be done and there’s a procedure to the daily grind. At the finish it’s play the find the soigner game, while dodging the media, race workers and various hangers on. Four out of the six finishes at the TDU are within an hour’s ride of Adelaide. In true old school Belgium style Rik has the team riding back to the hotel behind the team car on these days. Back at the hotel time, its showers, massages and getting the racing kit to the team’s soigners for washing. There’s an evening meal at 8:00pm, “we all eat together or not at all”, “if its been a good day then we might have a glass of red wine” and then bed at 10:00pm. “We maybe in bed by 10:00 but often we are awake until midnight catching up on daily life outside of the bubble via the Internet”. Andy isn’t a massive contributor to Twitter but loves Instagram, more looking than posting in his case.

As with most riders, Andy is somewhat shy, he prefers to let his legs and his results do the talking. Once primed though, Andy gave me a real insight into his world, which by and large isn’t as far removed for our own worlds’ of work. Andy obviously loves his job and is very good at it. If you want to know how good he is YouTube the final stage of the Tour Down Under. Andy is right in there at the finale with Greiple and Renshaw, taking third place, despite been given a really rough ride by Lotto Belisol. “I’m a bit of an all-rounder, maybe more of a sprinter,” was his assessment of his attributes. “I’m not a climber, that’s for sure! I’ve got a fast finish and I think I can do different things in different types of races.” I’m guessing his end of year review meeting with his boss will have all the ticks in all the right boxes.

An Open Space For Creativity and Collaboration

I love the work I do so much that it doesn’t actually feel like work at all. My Linkedin page describes me as a “solution architect” and “knowledge broker” but that’s only a small part of what I do. As someone who has worked in the international music industry for the last 38 years, and the higher education creative arts sector for the last 24 years, I am required to solve problems on a regular basis. A few weeks ago I was involved in a meeting with a couple of high-ranking academic mangers from an international creative higher education institution. They had correctly identified that the traditional siloed approach to “teaching” the creative arts was not particularly productive, nor was it creative and that collaborative working between different creative disciplines was the way forward. Bravo, problem correctly identified but that is the easy part. Now comes the really hard part; how to make creative students from different siloed disciplines work in collaboration? A classic Vladimir Propp ‘dispatcher’ scenario instilled in me, now go forth and solve that problem.

I am a big believer that the most dangerous eight words in any institution, enterprise or organisation are, “we have always done it this way before”. So I find myself in a meeting of educators from various different creative disciplines, e.g. film, design, audio, games programming, etc. to solve the problem of how to initiate and foster greater collaboration between these creative silos. It immediately becomes apparent that it’s not only the students that are not working collaboratively but neither are the staff. Indeed each ‘department’ was more that happy to be working within their own discipline with hardly any positive noises been made by anyone in the room towards full and meaningful collaborative work. Creativity by its very nature is a deviance from those unquestioned norms. Having a position outside the mainstream can facilitate one’s questioning of accepted practices and everyday modes of thought. I was shocked that a room full of creative minds was so closed to change. Maybe it’s an age problem; I am a 54 year old who grew out of the post punk art school movement in the UK. Deviance comes as second nature to me. This is not the first time in my professional career that I had stumbled into what Irving Goffman (1957) termed the “total institution”.

Osram
Osram’s cutting edge open-plan Munich office in 1957

I do not think that my learned colleagues had correctly diagnosed the problem. It’s virtually impossible to make students work on collaborative projects if the teaching staff can’t or won’t work collaboratively. In the same way that you can’t force people to love one another, you can’t force them to work collaboratively. The way to solve this problem is to get the teaching staff working collaboratively first; a classic case of some silo busting needs to be done. Traditional thinking here would suggest that a large open plan office housing the chalk face academic staff would result in collaborative approach. Not in this case. Each creative silo occupies one row each in a large open space. Just because a colleague sits within a PC’s throw away from the next, doesn’t mean they are going to talk to each other. Close proximity doesn’t generate productivity or collaboration nor is it conducive to creativity.

As a devout modernist you would think that I adore the concept of the open plan office. Ironically, it was a team of 1950s German modernists from Hamburg that conceived the open plan office to better facilitate communication and ideas flow. This new movement was termed Burolandschaft (office landscaping). But a growing body of evidence suggests that the standardisation of the open office undermines the purpose that it was designed to achieve. It’s my view that modern open plan office is a hegemonic device used to supress deviance and foster worker compliance. The problem here is that by its definition, great creative, collaborative work is by its very nature deviant in both form and content. It does not conform to established traditions in the field. Recent evidence published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology (Jungsoo. K, 2013) from a study of more than 40,000 workers in 300 U.S. office buildings, by far the most comprehensive research on this issue, came to the following conclusion, “Enclosed private offices clearly outperformed open-plan layouts in most aspects of IEQ (Indoor Environmental Quality), particularly in acoustics, privacy and the proxemics issues. Benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration.” Research journals love to use jargon but don’t let the jargon confuse you. The term “proxemics issues” refers to how people feel uncomfortable when they’re forced into close proximity with other people. In this case all the creative academics are stabled in a huge open plan office that resembles a call centre sweatshop rather than a highly creative space of voluntary collaboration.

The big issue here is one of physical creative space. One of the most important ingredients for an effective collaborative circle is a magnet place such as a pub (I spent an awful lot of time in pubs in the 1980s and 90s “working”) these days its more likely to be a café/coffee shop, corner shop, or even a lawn or garden; so long as it’s a place where group members can freely come together with each other to discuss new ideas and to talk and argue (constructively) about their work. A second key ingredient is for group members to have time away from the mainstream, time to look at issues and ideas from new perspectives without mental or social pressure to conform to accepted norms and attitudes. In the words of the inventor of lateral thinking, Edward de Bono, “Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way”. The blunt tool of management dictates, “you will work in collaboration”, will never be effective here in a similar fashion to the fabulous dialogue from Dr Strangelove (1964), “Gentlemen you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room”. In 2011, organisational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than a hundred studies about office environments. Davis found that although open-plan offices often fostered a positive symbolic sense of organisational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were extremely damaging to the inhabitant’s attention spans, productivity, satisfaction but most importantly their creative thinking. A more intelligent, less obvious, critical and creative approach needs to be taken here.

Last month saw Apple Inc. unveil two new sleek and very expensive iPhones in their brand new Steve Jobs Theatre, housed in the $6.2 AUS billon dollar campus Apple Park. According to the theatre’s architect, Stefan Behling of Foster and Partners, it is “a building which is pushing social behaviour in the way people work to new limits”. Behling identified that creative people work best in a space which is not a beige, standardised open plan office space. As discussed at the start of this article, Behling’s approach to design has its roots in Modernism. In 1896 the essay, The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered by the founding father of skyscrapers Louis Sullivan stated that the loftiness of skyscrapers is to be “on a high road to natural and satisfying art”. Just like other Modernist ideas such as Socialism, the building of utopia is great but it’s intrinsically difficult. People in general, and creative types specifically, do not enjoy collisions, or having their social behaviour pushed. You can lead a creative to another but you can’t force them to work together.

Revolutionary painter Henri Mattise once said “Creativity takes courage”. To go back to the original problem highlighted earlier in this article, rather than forcing creative people to work collaboratively why not manufacture the physical and social conditions conducive to creative collaborations? This requires a fundamental change to the working conditions at this institution. The big problem here is that they have just undertaken a very costly multi million-dollar campus renovation and my solution to this systemic issue is somewhat challenging (they often are). Despite all the investment, open plan offices invariably fall short of the mark because they negatively affect workers’ satisfaction with their physical environment and perceived productivity. The main complaints often include: noise and lack of privacy. Cramming people one on top of the other is probably the human equivalent of battery hens, the egg gets laid but the chickens are far from being happy. By my direct observations the desks in this institution’s open plan office are only occupied for a fraction of time each day. People turn up in the morning and use their desk to check email or more likely their social media and dump their personal artefacts. I would argue that a specific dedicated desk is not conducive to creative or collaborative working. Indeed, in this institution most collaboration takes place around the lunch table or in the tiny, uninspiring and unventilated kitchen.

Here’s my solution. Close the car park and give everyone an interest free 12-month loan to buy a bicycle. My premise here is the more you drive the less intelligent and more isolated you become. Allocate everyone a specific locker and make all desks, including managements’, ‘hot desks’. When staff arrive to work they can source a desk, if needed, but make sure all workspaces are connected either with a computer or capable of accommodating your own (BYO) devices. The apotheosis is “activity based working”, an approach pioneered in the mid 1990s by Dutch consulting firm Veldhoen. Rather than sitting in one space staff should move around different zones during the working day working normally, focusing quietly, or collaborating or even indulging in total isolation.

Creative Office Interior Design
The BBC’s new ‘creative’ space at Broadcasting House, London 

We also need to accept and understand that creative types don’t all exhibit the same behaviours or work in similar patters. Lets create better physical space to exploit this? Most creative collaboration requires constant moving from communal discussions to individual focus and back again. Kill the open place office and provide a variety of stimulating spaces that people will naturally gravitate to depending on their activity as opposed to their specific creative discipline. I call this activity based working. Rather than forcing creatives to work collaboratively let’s try to re-engineer human behaviours through inspiring work spaces. Forced marriages have been known to work occasionally but the best ones are where people meet and fall in love.  

Now would be a fantastic time for institutions to stop using collaboration as the main driver for open-plan offices. Let’s be honest and realistic, although open-plan offices may have started out as well-intentioned Modernist collaborative experiment, these days they exist purely for economic reasons. It is far easier to cram twenty desks into a single space than construct some highly creative and stimulating creative paces. My main point here is that you cannot force collaboration onto anyone who doesn’t want to collaborate. Simply put, some individuals have their own style of “collaborating” and should be left to their own devices. My intuitive guess is if the teaching staff initiate collaborative projects of their own accord then student collaborative projects will follow. My ultimate solution for effective collaboration at higher education institutions is to devise a creative space that encourages and facilitates student and staff from all previously siloed disciplines to share, discuss, debate and collaborate on meaningful creative projects together.

TimDalton2014

 

I am available for guest lectures, workshops, master classes, conferences and panels; simply drop me a line with your request and I’ll be in touch.

The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll

David Hepworth’s new book Never A Dull Moment claims that 1971 was the greatest year for popular music as it saw the release of more “monumental” albums than any year before or since. It’s an interesting claim and one that I will contest here. I also think it’s a really odd book title considering it’s the same as Rod Stewart’s superb 1972 album; why not give the book a namesake title from a “monumental” 1971 album? Granted 1971 saw an unprecedented number of album releases, but does that single metric make it the greatest album release year? Anyone who knows me will confirm that I love a good argument and so here it goes. Dave Hepworth is a fantastic music journalist but he got it completely wrong. His book should have been about the era from 1969 to 1981; the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll.

Taste is a very slippery concept as Immanuel Kant proposed in his 1790 Critique Of Judgement. Kant calls aesthetic judgments “judgments of taste” and remarks that, though they are based in an individual’s subjective feelings, they also claim universal validity. It could be claimed that Hepworth’s book is an attempt to canvass some form of universal acceptance; or he might just be trying to sell more books. The viewing of an art form is anything but a passive activity. Art should rouse us to an intellectual involvement with the world in which it was created. Good art results in a discourse and the better the art the more tumultuous that discourse should be.

Only last year (2015) I published my own book, Album Rescue Series, in which I tried to show some love to mistreated, misunderstood and underrated albums. On page 129 of this book, I rescue Jim Ford’s excellent 1969 Southern funky rumpus album Harlan County. During this album rescue, I argue that this album was largely overlooked because of the year of its release: 1969. Harlan County was probably the strangest but most compelling release of 1969, but what a year for popular music. 1969 was the launching pad for an era of unparalleled creativity in popular music the likes of which we’ll never see again. Hepworth’s identification of 1971 should not be viewed as an isolated year but as part of the twelve-year continuum of popular music’s most prolific era, which ran from 1969 to its sad demise in 1981.

Harlan County1

During the 12 months of 1969 we see releases from Bob Dylan (Nashville Skyline), The Beatles (Abbey Road), Tim Buckley (Blue Afternoon), Led Zeppelin (Led Zeppelin II), King Crimson (In The Court of King Crimson), The Who (Tommy), Captain Beefheart (Trout Mask Replica), Nick Drake (Pink Moon), Sly and the Family Stone (Stand), The Rolling Stones (Let It Bleed), The Band (The Band), The Stooges (The Stooges) and a host of other amazing albums. How on earth could Jim Ford, an unheard of artist from the back hills of Kentucky, with his unique blend of country, funk, soul and rock ‘n’ roll ever get noticed in the company of these esteemed artists? If you’ve never heard Harlan County then go out and buy this album and give it a spin; if you don’t like it, I’ll give you your money back. I was seven years old for the majority of 1969, and didn’t turn eight until mid December, but all of these albums I distinctly remember. What I do remember is zeitgeist of 1969, the break up of The Beatles, the violent end of the peace and love generation presided over by Rolling Stones at Altamount and the white heat of new technology manifested by Neil Armstong standing on the moon. No wonder 1969 was such an epistemic year for popular music.

1969

Don’t get me wrong, I agree with Hepworth when he cites some exquisite, delightful and ground-breaking albums of 1971. You cannot dispute Carole King (Tapestry), Badfinger (Straight Up), Rod Stewart (Every Picture Tells A Story), Emerson Lake & Palmer (Pictures At An Exhibition), Rolling Stones (Sticky Fingers), John Lennon (Imagine), Paul McCartney (Ram) and George Harrison (All Things Must Pass); all of which I play on a regular basis. Back in 1971 record sales were growing too fast for the record companies to exert any kind of meaningful creative control. They threw an awful lot of shit at the wall and hoped some of it would stick; not the type of approach prescribed in the business manuals that would follow in the 1980s. Amongst all this shit though were the shining diamonds of perfection as listed above. Back in 1971 the record business was in an unprecedented boom period, profits were good and re-investment in product development (A&R) at an all time high.

Carole_King

For the next decade the music would be good until it died at the end of 1981. Even as a musically precious nine/ten year old I remember 1971 very distinctly mainly because of the music which I was already showing signs of being obsessed with. During this era it was de-rigour for acts to be signed to two albums a year recording contracts, which meant they were all extra productive at their most creative age. Everybody played live all the time. Neil Young wrote and recorded Harvest while on the road during 1971 in locations as far apart as Barking, East London and Nashville. The classic T. Rex singles were recorded at stops on their 1971 American tour. Pink Floyd spent weekdays recording Meddle and weekends playing colleges. Nobody took months off. Nobody dared. During this era, popular music was getting serious and corporate. The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, was their first album under the distinctive tongue ‘corporate’ logo and released on their own ‘independent’ label. I would argue (I like arguing) that this Stones album was almost as notable for its cover as its content. 1971 was the year Brown Sugar, the last truly great Rolling Stones single (but that’s another article for another day), went to number one.

While discussing this article at work last week with my boss (Gareth) he made the point, and a good point it is too, that 1981 was probably the last truly great year for popular music. In terms of this article/blog I am prepared to state that 1981 is the end of rock ‘n’ rolls’ most creative and productive era. 1981 is an interesting time as Modernism is all but dead and post modernism has well and truly taken hold. Consider the albums that were released during 1981: The Rolling Stones (Tattoo You), Stevie Nicks (Bella Donna), Motorhead (No Sleep Till Hammersmith), U2 (October), Human League (Dare), Miles Davis (Directions), New Order (Movement), The Cure (Faith), Simple Minds (Fascination/Sister Feeling Call), The Psychedelic Furs (Talk Talk Talk) and The Police (Ghost In The Machine). In many ways these albums signal then end of rock ’n’ rolls creative and profitable golden years and signal the start of a new era; a new way of conducting business.

Behind the scenes the creative, maverick, iconoclastic and entrepreneurial music managers were been driven out by the faceless beige suited office drones, obsessed by spread sheets and quadrant charts. By 1981, Thatcherism was starting to make its presence felt in the UK; the good times for a whole host of traditional industries was well and truly over. In the same year, Ronald Regan came to power in the USA. Between Regan and Thatcher, the traditional Anglo American power base of popular music was well and truly under attack from monetarism. How can any creative endeavour survive when it’s exposed to monetarism’s money growth rule? 1981 was the end of making lots of great records and the start of making a small number of profitable records. In a head on fight between creativity and commerciality, the one with the muscles is always going to win.

I hate to end this piece with such a downbeat message so here is some good news. Head down to your independent local record store as every album listed above will be for sale. Have a listen to these albums and test my argument. Record Store Day happens on Saturday 16th April this year, so why not head out on this special day and treat yourself to a classic piece of music. Not only will your purchase make you smile for many years to come but you will also have supported a local independent business and that’s a good thing. In the words of Mott The Hoople’s 1974 hit The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll

The golden age of rock ‘n’ roll will never die
As long as children feel the need to laugh and cry
Dont wanna smash, want a smash sensation
Dont wanna wreck, just recreation
Dont wanna fight, but if you turn us down
Were gonna turn you around, gonna mess with the sound

Ohh, ohh, ohh
Its good for body, its good for your soul
Ohh, ohh, ohh
Its the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll

Golden_age

 

Why I Support Record Store Day Australia

Record Store Day Australia (RSDA) takes place on April 16th this year and it is the third consecutive year that I’ve agreed to be an official ambassador. I’m very happy to join fellow RSD ambassador’s Ella Hooper and Adam Brand to support this wonderful day of music and fun. The purpose of RSD is to celebrate the culture and diversity of the independently owned record store. The Australian Music Retailers Association (AMRA) promotes RSDA and it has the unqualified support of record companies and Australian music icons that know the importance of supporting independent music stores. The day brings together fans, artists and thousands of independent record stores across the whole of Australia.

Chris Brown, who was an employee of independent CD, DVD, games and book retailer Bull Moose, originated Record Store Day in the USA. The concept was loosely based around the idea of the already successful Free Comic Book Day. Inspiration came from a brainstorming session held during a record storeowners’ meeting in Baltimore resulting in Record Store Day being officially founded in 2007. It is now celebrated at stores throughout the world, with hundreds of recording and performing artists participating in the day by making special appearances, performances, meeting and greeting their fans, the holding of art exhibits, and the issuing of special vinyl and CD releases along with other promotional products to mark the occasion. Each store holds their own party for the day, to celebrate the unique individuality of each store, and the place it holds within its community. Although Record Store Day, the actual day, only occurs once a year, AMRA (the organisation) provides promotions, marketing, and other opportunities for stores throughout the year, maintaining a website, social media and other means of promulgating its views about the value of independent record stores.

The key word here is ‘independent’. RSDA is about celebrating this word ‘independence’, as in freedom, liberty and self-governance. I am well aware of the advantages of a globalised world economy; indeed I am an English man who now lives in Melbourne, Australia who also lived and worked in the USA. For the whole of my working life I was involved, directly and indirectly, in producing and selling mass appeal contemporary popular music to a global audience. So it may sound contrary when I pontificate about the virtues of independent retailers. But I believe that it is possible for independent retailers to exist in a globalized economy, adding value and variety to our otherwise over standardized lives. I come from a family of independent retailers, my brother Nick and his wife Annie, are proprietors of the UK’s coolest bicycle shop, East Coast Bicycles, my father owned a number of different retail operations and my grandfather ran a shoe repair business all of his life. Our retail spaces are now almost exclusively the preserve of trans national global corporations who view the entire planet as one large connected market place. This can work in the consumer’s favor e.g. economies of scale resulting in lower prices and standardization of products across the globe; I’m not anti-globalization per-say. The globalized retailers take care of the generic, standardized, bulk of products but with little deviation resulting in limited choice. Take globalized furniture retailer Ikea, as an example, each store throughout the world carries exactly the same lines. The world’s biggest music retailer, iTunes, is a truly global phenomenon even though it only exists virtually.

This is where independent retailers come in, no matter what they are selling be it recorded music, groceries, shoes, clothing, wine or bicycles. The independent retailers are the purveyors of choice and are more often-than-not the local arbiters of style and taste. It’s the independents that seek out the bizarre, unusual, quirky, sexy, individual, niche, local and personal items that we desperately need in our lives. Granted these ‘desire’ or ‘life style statement’ items may cost a little more but they are the artifacts that become family heirlooms, the items that we cherish, the ones we love, the items with a narrative attached to them. I for one think that’s worth the cash premium.

Go into any independent retailer of whatever variety and you will invariably find the owner or his family serving you as opposed to some minimum wage earning, polo shirted/fleece wearing, badged, robo-drone who has no interest in the item that you wish to purchase. With an independent you are getting the attention of an expert/enthusiast, someone who has invested countless hours in researching their stock line, they can point out the almost indistinguishable differences on what appears to be similar products. At my favourite record store I spend many hours of my Saturday afternoons flicking through the racks. More often than not the owner, lets call him Buddy, comes over and strikes up a conversation with me and discusses music, records, artists and gigs. He’s not ‘upselling’ rather he is genuinely interested in my musical taste and me. Try this approach in a giant, on-line, globalised music retail environment it’s not the same. Reading the on-line ‘customer reviews’ below a product on a web site is useful but its not like being there. My local store plays loud music on a great sounding system with the cover of the album that they are playing highlighted on a plinth with “Currently Playing” written on it. OK, this is upselling but its upselling of the kind caring type, the type I like. You can buy wine at the supermarket but isn’t it much better to chat with the independent retailer who can describe the characteristics of that particular wine and what dish it is best served with? It’s the same with recorded music.

RSDA is motived around a single day, 16th April this year. This is the day when we celebrate the independent music retailers. Bands, acts and artists release special limited runs of ‘product’ and often perform in store with a real party atmosphere. There is a misconception that RSDA is solely about vinyl sales, its not. RSDA is format agnostic, buy whatever you like on whatever format you like, but make sure that you buy it from an independent retailer. This is a use it or loose it deal. If people don’t support local independent retailers they will disappear. Indeed with the ‘long tail’ online globalised retailers increasingly colonising our leisure space it’s becoming even harder for independents to keep the lights on. At the most basic level, when you buy local more money stays in the community.

The New Economics Foundation (NEF), a UK based independent economic think tank who’s aim is to transform the economy so that it works for people and the planet rather than profits, recently compared what happens when people buy produce at a supermarket vs. a local farmer’s market or community supported agriculture (CSA) program. This research found that twice the money stayed in the community when customers bought locally. “That means those purchases are twice as efficient in terms of keeping the local economy alive,” says author and NEF researcher David Boyle. The local producer/retailer also adds creative elements that make either the product or materials used more appropriate to the location. For example in my adopted home city of Melbourne, RSDA will see local stores offering up some superb one off recordings of local bands. Check the lists of releases on the RSDA web site for what’s available in your city.

Another argument for buying locally and independently is that it enhances the ‘velocity’ of money, or circulation speed, in the area. The idea is that if currency circulates more quickly, the money passes through more hands, a greater number of people benefit from the money and what it has purchased for them. “If you’re buying local and not at a chain or branch store, chances are that store is not making a huge profit,” says David Morris, Vice President of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit economic research and development organisation based in the USA capital Washington, D.C. “That means more goes into input costs such as supplies and upkeep, printing, advertising, paying employees, which puts that money right back into the local community.

By shopping at the independent record store, instead of the global online retailer, you can stop your community from becoming a ‘clone town’, where the Main Street now looks like every other Main Street in the world with the same fast-food and retail chains. This is a compelling argument for supporting RSDA and its fun too. Save some cash and get into those independent record stores on 16th April and spend, spend, spend. Not only will it give you a smug good all over glow feeling but you will also come away with some music in a tactile format that will stay with you for the rest of your life. That’s why I support Record Store Day Australia; I’ll see you in-store on 16th April?