Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Editorial: The End?

Over the last 12 months the online version of Under the Radar (UtR) has grown from an irregularly updated blog manned by one lonely journalist to a multimedia micro-site with daily contributions from writers across the country.

But this isn’t (all) about blowing our own trumpet. No, this is a glowing reflection of the Scottish music scene’s particularly rude health. If it wasn’t for the swarm of artists, labels and promoters that buzzes around us, we simply wouldn’t be in the position we are now.

Scottish music is no longer the periphery-dwelling underdog it once was. This fertile landscape of talented musicians has coincided with a robust sect of keyboard tappers who are keenly spreading the word about Scotland’s cauldron of sound.

This year, like no other, Scottish acts are bringing their music to people across the UK, across Europe, and across the world. They’re perking the ears of brand new audiences who are, in turn, fanfaring their virtues across social networking sites like PR men and women working for free. The best and most trustworthy kind of testimonial, you’ll no doubt agree.

Our point is this: Scottish music is no longer under the radar. At the risk of stretching the metaphor, today Scottish music is firmly on the radar. And because of this shifting scenario, we’ve decided to get with the times and point UtR in the same direction.

From today, we’ll no longer exist in our current guise. We’re having a facelift, a name change and we're moving to a brand new website.

Don’t worry, everything you’ve loved (and loathed?) about UtR will continue to be; we’ll keep bringing you the latest news, features, reviews, and podcasts from the heart of the Scottish music scene. But instead of doing it in the hope that someone will pick up on the music we love, we'll be doing it with the knowedge that people are listening.

So, as this is our last ever post on this page, we’d like to thank you for reading. It’s been a blast.

UtR is dead. Long live Radar.


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Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Editorial: Six appeal

Mark Thompson
[Mark Thompson: in pop music he trusts]

The outcry over the BBC's proposed axing of 6 Music has been futile. Despite DJs like Phill Jupitus quickly branding the plan "a slap in the face to licence-payers" and thousands of music fans adding their tweets to the #saveBBC6Music trend and joining Facebook protest groups, the inevitable was confirmed today.

Mark Thompson, director general of the Beeb, announced the decision as part of his "strategy review" - put simply, an attempt to shake off the persistent allegations from politicians that the corporation is 'bloated' and not delivering value to the licence-payer.

Now we could join the chorus of outrage over the absurd logic whereby Chris Moyles takes home £630k a year to jabber self-importantly over bad music but some of the corporation's most innovative and intelligent digital offerings are deemed surplus to requirments. But we'll leave that to other commentators - and there will be plenty of them. What's more, many of 6 Music's best offerings - such as Gideon Coe's intrepid archive trawling, Adam & Joe's infectious banter or Bob Dylan's themed raspings - have nothing to do with our 'new music' concerns anyway.

No, rather than fan the flames of ire (and despite the fact that it has a mere 700,000 listeners, 6 Music's fans are a vocal, media-savvy bunch), we thought it would be more pertinent to look at a few inconsistencies and imbalances this whole sorry affair spotlights:

• This is a triumph of mainstream majority over alternative minority, but since when does the BBC have to operate by such commercial imperatives anyway? No matter what the MPs say, it's the BBC's unique, non-commercial status that is its most vital quality. Its independence from advertisers breeds diversity, affording air time to unsigned bands or obscure classics on the margins of its scope, instead of wholesale playlisting across the board.

Here on UtR, on the Scotsman website, we are technically one of its online competitors, but while it would be easy to harbour jealousies for the huge resources at their disposal, the last thing we want is to see their commitment to emergent music diminish to nothing.

• As the BBC's coverage of new music shrinks (and at this rate Vic Galloway's show could soon be the only source of underground sounds us Scots get on the BBC), it makes us wonder: why is it that more traditional forms of music get such a good billing, especially in Scotland? Granted, it's native and it's inoffensive and many people love it, but you can hardly turn on BBC2 or Radio Scotland without being regaled by some implausibly cheerful fiddler. While that's perfectly fine in itself, it does seem to us that there's an imbalance here, especially given the vitality of new music in this country right now.

• It has been predicted that if the BBC does retreat from the cutting edge there would at least be a vacuum which could be filled by independent bloggers and podcasters. Again, if this theory proves correct then UtR, a kind of 'mainstream blog', stands to benefit. But we're not convinced by this argument, and as a new band starting out, would you rather tell your mum to turn on the radio or TV to hear your song or download a podcast? There's still a frisson of excitement around being featured on the traditional media that new media has yet to match.

The first draft of this editorial, written before today's announcement, ended on some suggestions for the BBC. Now that they have settled on a provisional course of action, we can only leave you with a (tongue-in-cheek) glimpse of the future for us all.

Have an opinion on this? Let us know below...

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Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Editorial: The sound of 2010?

UKThanks to the BBC Sound of 2010 poll, Stornoway is now on the musical map. Well the Oxford band is, not the Hebridean town.

And that's about as Scottish as the record industry in 2010 is going to get, if you believe the BBC's 'tastemakers'.

In case you haven't yet heard, this is the list of names and locations of the artists who will be soundtracking next year:

Daisy Dares You - London
Delphic - Manchester
Devlin - Essex
The Drums - New York
Everything Everything - Manchester
Giggs - London
Gold Panda - London
Ellie Goulding - Powys, Wales
Hurts - Manchester
Joy Orbison - Croydon
Marina And The Diamonds - London
Owl City - Minnesota
Rox - London
Stornoway - Oxford
Two Door Cinema Club - Northern Ireland

The main criteria for the annual predictor game, which always ladles each act with a generous helping of hype, is that the artists tipped must not have had a top 20 single or album before mid-November.

Now we're not implying that any of the acts we've featured in the past year should necessarily have been included, because potential unit-shifting is not one of the criteria we adopt at UtR. But there are Scottish acts who could potentially make a commercial breakthrough but are conspicuous by their absence. Unicorn Kid, Broken Records or Young Fathers, to name a few.

If this sounds eerily familiar, then you may remember our last editorial debate, 'Does thinking local mean staying local?', where we lamented the flat-out rejection of four of Scotland's most exciting bands by a London-based music editor.

Disheateningly, the massed ranks of the music media appear to be resolutely stationed down south, and from 136 pundits, the BBC hasn't enlisted the help of anyone in the Scottish scene. If a music supervisor for Hollyoaks is deemed an expert, then where are the Scottish radio DJs, magazine editors, critics and label scouts?

We don't want to come across as bitter, Saltire-waving nationalists, but surely our native music makers deserve better recognition than they're currently receiving on a UK-wide level.

What do you think?
Is the BBC poll a good representation of cutting edge music, or is it unfairly weighted towards London?

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Thursday, 12 November 2009

Editorial: Does thinking local mean staying local?

'local band'
[Somewhere else's 'local band']

This editorial is born more out of bewilderment than anything else. You know that feeling when somebody shatters the zen-like equilibrium you’ve been maintaining for as long as your well-pickled memory bank can stretch back to? Well, that’s exactly how we’re feeling right now.

To paint the picture, we were recently contacted by an editor of a well known, well respected UK music publication (which will remain nameless) asking whether we could write a 500-word feature on a Scottish band that had been tickling our music-loving tastebuds lately. The reason being that his much read periodical was sorely lacking in north of the border coverage.

As staunch tub-thumpers of the local scene, we readily agreed to this mutually beneficial proposal and responded with a list of four bands we think are worthy of national press exposure (again, for the sake of dignity, these four bands will remain anonymous, but rest assured we’ve featured the quartet prominently over the last year). The response was not quite what we’d expected.

Depressingly, not one of our suggestions was deemed an adequate candidate for a meagre 500-word feature. Not one. That’s four bands we’ve lobbied for on this blog; four bands that a host of Scottish rags/zines, including The Skinny, The List, Glasgow PodcART, and Song, by Toad, have variously championed with considerable relish; four bands that regularly sardine-pack punters into sweat-soaked caverns on both the east and west coast. In other words, sure-fire winners. Or not?

See, when you’re writing about bands from the local scene that’s exactly how you think about it - a band from the local scene. There’s no heed paid to how they will fare in the big, bad world. Not a moment of consideration is given to whether the music making miscreants stood before you could actually sink or swim in the shark infested waters of the wider musical ocean. You just think: This is here. This is now. This is great.

But is it?

Our experience of the editorial cold-shoulder, despite running through a slew of potential caveats (“oh, he didn’t hear the right MySpace songs” or “oh, he mustn’t like those types of music”), suggests we could all be kidding ourselves. Think about it, this was a music editor proactively seeking a Scottish band to feature. Someone who WANTED (and probably still wants) to focus on bands up here. Yet when four of our finest were put forward, they were rejected. And it wasn’t just a flat out rejection. No, it was worse. It was complete and utter ambivalence.

Scotland’s microcosmic music scene may benefit from an approving environment that will always stand by its own, but is this the foolhardy response of myopic parochialism? Are we all (and by ‘all’ we mean media, promoters and fans) draping an invisible cloak of praise over our bands and allowing them to be found out in unforgiving, un-hoodwinkable climes? Christ, are we taking part in the Emperor’s New Clothes of music journalism?

Perhaps the proof lies in the grotesquely overcooked pudding that is the mainstream media. How many Scottish acts can you name that have stacked up column inches in the national press in recent times. Off the top of our heads we’ve got The View, The Fratellis, Glasvegas and Paolo Nutini. A sorry cast of major label signed acts, you’d have to agree. Lagging behind is The Twilight Sad, Frightened Rabbit and We Were Promised Jetpacks – three bands with one common denominator: they’re all signed to (the admittedly brilliant) FatCat, a Brighton-based record label.

So why are local label-tied acts being completely disregarded by the national press corps? Perhaps it’s that age-old adage that southern music journalists can’t push their hyperbole-scrawling pens past London? Or maybe, just maybe, our music scene needs to open itself up to more holistic thinking. Rather than sucking tight on the teat of the Scottish music scene’s ever-giving bosom, bands should think about advancing outside their comfort zone by getting gigs in places where they know they’ll have to work to win over a non fawning rash of sour-chopped tykes.

And what can we in the regional media do to help? Well, rather than meeting each promising new act with a stream of superlatives, it could be time to cut the crap and do some contextualising. To get bands ‘on the radar’ perhaps we need to let them know where they stand in the bigger picture instead of appraising them through a tartan-tinted microscope. And if so, then UtR has some significant changes ahead, as do those residing in the same cul-de-sac of online music journalism.

Of course, we still stand by every one of these four bands. And in our staunch, undoubtedly Scottish, resolve, there remains an element of doubt gnawing away at the back of our brainboxes that says: it’s not us that got it wrong, it was them. Maybe that’s the way we’ll always see it.

Words: UtR

What do YOU think?
Are we all blinkered in the way we view our local music scene?
Are the national tastemakers shortsighted in their outlook?


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Thursday, 15 October 2009

Editorial: How many new bands is too many?

Anonymous band

Disclaimer: This article is an unashamed act of navel-gazing.

When we started blogging here on UtR, we didn't really think we'd be a likely target for criticism.

We don't publish reviews, so there's no chance of the increasingly common online backlash to a hatchet job, and we don't fawn over established acts, so no-one can accuse us of any commercial bias.

No, we entered into this with our consciences clear and an unassuming goal: to offer a platform for the best new music in Scotland. Gee shucks.

How naïve we were. In the blogosphere no-one is exempt from potshots, and so, when we came across a post on one of Scotland's most established music blogs, The Pop Cop, which derided our choice of acts, it sparked our curiosity.

We were keen to find out why Mr Pop Cop had become "disillusioned" with UtR, so we asked him to expand on his comments with a guest blog post. Here we offer up his argument in full, followed by our response.

The Pop CopThe Pop Cop writes...

This month is a significant one for The Pop Cop as it marks the first birthday of the Music Alliance Pact. MAP is an international group of bloggers who each month simultaneously post a list of freely downloadable tracks by their countries' best new acts, with one suggestion from each MAP member.

My job is to pick a Scottish song worthy of sharing with a global, music-hungry audience once a month, and it struck me that one cracking new act a month from Scotland is as much as I could ever hope to find these days.

To put it bluntly, there is a very limited amount of spread-the-word music being made in this country at the moment by up-and-coming artists, despite the fact I check out every single band recommendation, MySpace link and email tip-off that comes my way.

That is why I was shocked when I heard that Under the Radar are on course to have featured 100 bands on their 'on the radar' pieces in its first year of existence.

As thorough as UtR is in promoting the underground music scene in Scotland, I find myself becoming increasingly disillusioned by what they deem blogworthy talent. It doesn't matter how they spin it, the frequency of UtR's artist profiles - usually two or three per week - is done so at the expense of quality control, not with their writing (which is top-notch) but with the new acts they choose to feature. The overwhelming majority fall in the 'average to alright' category.

It's the equivalent of going to the casino and putting your chips on all 37 slots on the roulette wheel - you're guaranteed to land on the winner but you'll also back an awful lot of losers. If you think that’s harsh, ask yourself this question - of all the streaming songs featured on UtR, how many do you listen to more than once?

While it's undeniably heartening that Scotland's underground music scene is given such significant coverage, UtR do their readers a disservice by taking such a rose-tinted view of it.

Of course, UtR isn't coming out and declaring that every single band they write about is the best thing ever, but by making their 'on the radar' pieces so frequent, they have little choice but to give average Scottish acts a platform they haven't earned.

You're probably wondering why I care so much, especially as I have my own music blog to write about whoever I think does deserve the attention. Well, I also regard myself as a reader of UtR, and as a reader, I find it disheartening to constantly sift through mediocre songs on a website whose motto is "showcasing the best unsigned bands".

UtR reckon there are 100 up-and-coming artists worth hearing each year in Scotland. I think there are 12.

I long for the day when I can go the UtR site and just know that this new act I'm reading about for the first time must be amazing - simply because they have made it onto 'on the radar'. Now, wouldn't that be something special?

Under the RadarUtR replies...

The Pop Cop makes several points, but the thrust of his argument is that Scotland's music scene isn't productive enough to warrant anything more than one band worth writing about per month.

We respectfully disagree. In seven months we have published more than 60 profiles, and have rejected far more enquiries after a swift listen. So far we have yet to feel stretched, or under any pressure to feature a band just to plug a gap in our schedule. Nor did we set out with any bands-per-month target (a whole new meaning for BPM). The frequency of acts on UtR grew out of a natural reflection of what we were listening to and being exposed to on a weekly basis. Simple as that.

And we're not alone in our "rose-tinted" view of music in Scotland right now. It's surely no coincidence that The List's Exposure feature has picked up the pace this year, or that Glasgow Podcart introduces many more bands than we do on its weekly podcast, or that The Skinny is stepping up its emphasis on homegrown talent, on top of sites like Song, by Toad, Ten Tracks, Off the Beaten Tracks and The Kiosque. Granted, not all of the above focus solely on Scotland, but they're all based here and set aside more than a fair share for our native music-makers.

But what really struck us was the accusation that we have done all this "at the expense of quality control". We don't begrudge an honest opinion - and we hope this editorial proves that we encourage them - but there are two problems with making this assumption:

1. It's subjective. As is musical taste. Does a music website or magazine exist where you enjoy every recommended band? We have six regular writers with their own preferences, covering anything from electronica to indie-pop to post-rock. We assume each of our readers also has their own preferences. We guarantee that you won't like everything on the blog. There, we said it, and we're perversely proud of that fact.

2. The alternative, to follow The Pop Cop's logic, would be to enforce UN-style bureaucracy over our editorial policy. We'd have to organise meetings where we all sit around and debate whether a band is good enough for the blog. Weirdly, that sounds like fun, but in reality everything would be vetoed, and you, dear reader, would never get to make your own mind up because we'd never publish anything.

No, we operate a benign dictatorship here at UtR. The writers pitch something, we take a listen, and if it's genuinely original or just damn good, it enters the queue for publication.

The final problem we have with the complaint (and yes, this is beginning to sound like legalese) is the roulette analogy. You play the roulette to win, and The Pop Cop implies that we stand to gain if an act we have featured makes a breakthrough.

Nonsense. We're not doing this for self-congratulation. And we've been in the music hack game long enough to know that rewards, whatever form they take, are reserved for a select few. Sure, it would be a nice validation of our efforts if a band did achieve success on the back of an UtR profile, but that is certainly not the fundamental purpose.

Despite our little disagreement, we're still grateful for The Pop Cop's feedback, and perhaps there are issues we do need to address or things we should be doing differently. As ever, we keep an open mind, so on that note, we invite your comments...

Does Scotland produce more than 12 blogworthy bands a year?
Have we sacrificed our quality control?
Which UtR-featured acts made you sit up and take notice?

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Wednesday, 9 September 2009

So who will be the next Scottish Mercury winner?

Speech Debelle

The odds of a Scottish act reclaiming the Mercury Music Prize would appear to be at an all-time low.

After handing the gong to a bunch of grizzly Northerners last year, the judges reverted to type and bestowed the £20K cheque upon the talented but hardly groundbreaking rapper Speech Debelle (above) last night.

And Glasvegas frontman James Allan couldn't even be bothered to show up.

But on the other hand, if the type of winner does really run in cycles, that could mean that a Scottish win is in the pipeline. First it was Primal Scream in 1992, then a long gap until Franz Ferdinand in 2004, but who will be our nation's next media dahlings?

UtR writers offer their tips...

We Were Promised Jetpacks We Were Promised Jetpacks - nominated by Aimi Gold

We Were Promised Jetpacks can multi-task.

Like rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time, the Jetpacks have managed the tough task of tapping into the UK and American market simultaneously; making fans and selling albums on both sides of the Atlantic.

Their beautiful debut album These Four Walls gut-punches with emotionally driven lyrics and music that compliments, rich in dynamics and confident in delivery. Opening track 'Thunder and Lightning' is a statement that demands attention, with vocalist Adam Thompson's performance sung and shouted with obvious passion.

In quieter moments, such as 'This is my house, this is my home', the album shimmers with stunning melody and subtle guitar hooks.

Accessible without trying to be, We Were Promised Jetpacks should be given every accolade that raises their profile and ensures These Four Walls reaches every house in the country.

Play: Quiet Little Voices

Broken RecordsBroken Records - nominated by Andrew Learmonth

Apart from great songs and great musicianship, what Broken Records have that makes them potential Mercury winners is commercial appeal.

Until The Earth Begins To Part (UTEBTP) is an album like Elbow's Mercury-winning Seldom Seen Kid. Those already aware of the band love them wholeheartedly, but UTEBTP is a record that can induce plenty of potential converts.

It's clever, affecting, complicated music they write, not introspective self indulgent nonsense. That doesn’t stop them being a band who would be equally at home on the playlist of Radio 1, 2 and 6, and there's probably some folky, world music show on Radio 3 that they could be shoe horned into.

The true test of any song on any album is how it would sound on the radio. ‘If The News Make You Sad...’ sounds amazing.

Play: If The News Makes You Sad Don't Watch It

BeerjacketBeerjacket - nominated by Elaine Liddle

Alongside the token jazz act of the year, the Mercury judges have often seen fit to shine a light on solo singer-songwriters. Granted, it's not since Badly Drawn Boy in 2000 that someone of this ilk has won, but take a look back at almost any year in the last decade and you'll spot one: Laura Marling in 2008, Fionn Regan in 2007, Seth Lakeman in 2005.

The styles might differ but the common thread is of solitary, guitar-strumming writers stringing their emotions into a well-crafted song. Beerjacket certainly has that in hand on latest album Animosity. Meanwhile his Springsteen-covering ways have brought Peter Kelly the attention of a wider audience in recent months, just the kind of buzz Mercury judges adore.

And can't you just picture Lauren Laverne smiling over 'Dancing in the Dark' during one of those awkward nominee interviews they show on BBC2 before the announcement is made?

Play: Drum

Maple LeavesMaple Leaves - nominated by Clare Sinclair

Having adorned the T Break stage after just three months of being and armed with the sort of summery melodies and harmonies that leave you with no choice but to sing along to, who else could storm future Mercurys Award shows but Glasgow triad Maple Leaves?

Not every three-piece can make such a big, voluptuous sound, and it’s their sheer musicality that does it for me every time. Having been spotted so quickly in their careers, and with an eagerly anticipated EP due for release this autumn, this is a band capable of taking us back to the roots of music, much like Belle & Sebastian once did.

Play: Easy Speak

MeursaultMeursault - nominated by Stevie Kearney

On sheer omnipresence alone, Meursault deserve an award. There is a credible rumour doing the rounds that the Edinburgh band have pioneered cloning technology and there are actually seven Meursaults – one for each day of the week.

Other than their ferocious schedule, there are lots of reasons to love this band. Last year’s Pissing on Bonfires, Kissing with Tongues was a superb mixture of structured songwriting and strange electronic noises, which may be just the right combination to appeal to the Mercury judging panel. The new material currently doing the rounds at their many gigs is, in a word, awesome.

With the backing of Song, by Toad records and plans afoot to tour a little further from home, next year should, if there is a God, see Meursault break into the mainstream both in the UK and abroad. Like a favoured son leaving home, Meursault need to be packed off into the big bad world. We’ll miss them when they’re gone.

Play: A Few Kind Words

Withered HandWithered Hand - nominated by Lisa-Marie Ferla

Okay, I'll admit it: on first listen, the odds look steep. Scratchy vocals which could at best be described as eccentric, lo-fi production; lyrics which reference loneliness, depression, religious guilt and masturbation... Withered Hand is hardly a mass-market proposition.

A listen to debut album Good News however reveals an accomplished singer-songwriter in his Sunday best, face washed and long hair tucked behind ears. It's just as clever, just as raw - but laced with moments of sublime singalong harmony which couldn't help but raise a smile in the grumpiest of judging panels.

Every one of these lists needs a singer-songwriter, and you'd be hard placed to find a better one in Scotland than Dan Willson. Antony and the Johnsons' strangled frog vocals took the Mercury crown, Badly Drawn Boy strummed and hummed his way to the prize - if there was any justice, Withered Hand should too.

Play: No Cigarettes

Wounded KneeWounded Knee - nominated by Billy Hamilton

The roll call for this year’s Mercury Music Prize suggests the odds of Drew Wright (AKA Wounded Knee) one day emerging victorious with a cheque for £20K are fairly slim. But, think about it: is it really that preposterous?

Sure, his freeform expressionism is hardly in keeping with the mainstream-manicuring of the modern day; then again didn’t Talvin Singh (who?) encounter the same protestations?

Likewise, Wright’s indecipherable intone may seem too obscure for the MP3-attuned masses, but , let’s face it, Dizzee Rascal’s elocution left a lot to be desired.

And as for being from north of the border? Well, if a transvestite American can win it then, hell, surely a robe-adorning Scot with a penchant for hymnal skatting [keep it clean gents] is in with a chance?

In fact, the more I think about it the more it becomes clear: Wounded Knee is a shoe-in for the Mercury Music Prize.

ErrorsErrors - nominated by Nick Mitchell

The precedents for an instrumental electronica Mercury winner are practically non-existent - unless you somehow squish Roni Size's hyper-speed D'n'B into that particular musical cookie cutter ... maybe not.

But that surely means that Errors' time is ripe for some breakthrough recognition.

Last year's ungrammatically-titled debut LP It's not something but it is like whatever - and indeed the How Clean is Your Acid House? EP that preceded it - were both thrilling portals into their unique sound world, lying somewhere on a weird continuum between Warp Records and Mogwai.

The Rock Action-signed Glasgow quartet are currently busying themselves with album number two, and you can bet they'll be pushing their abstract yet danceable crossover jams even further forward.

If Led Bib can make the shortlist this year, then why not Errors for 2010?

Play: Salut France

Do you have a future Mercury tip? Let's be hearing it...

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Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Editorial: Is there any point in music awards?

La Roux / Glasvegas / Speech Debelle

So it’s Mercury Music Prize (or Barclaycard Mercury Prize, if you wish to be pedantic) time again and, as ever, expletive-riddled rants that usually begin with “I can’t believe..." and end with "...Glasvegas/Kasabian/La Roux?!!?!!?” are spooled out across the country.

But what’s been gnarling our bark here at UtR towers isn’t so much the line-up itself, as the whole damn point of music awards. On one hand they’re a ‘celebration of music’, a veritable banquet of the best tune-churners around. But on the other, well, all they do is reinforce the stranglehold of commercialism, forcing acts to play ball or die in a cocoon of uncooperative insularity.

So, with our feathers firmly ruffled, we put forward our arguments for and against the never dying beast that is the music awards ceremony...

"The Mercury at least registers a pulse of vitality"


By Nick Mitchell

The big gripe that’s always slung at the Mercury Music Prize is that it’s blatantly tokenistic in its cover-all-bases approach. If a contemporary jazz trio are nominated then that’s the ‘token jazz’ slot filled, and the same applies to the ‘token classical’ composer or the ‘token urban’ rapper.

But while the box-ticking nature of the shortlist comes across like the overtly liberal narcissism it undoubtedly is, I would argue that the Mercury winners, on the other hand, are refreshingly unpredictable.

Roni SizeHow often do the bookies’ favourites actually triumph anyway? How often are you shocked, blind-sided or just baffled by the name that’s plucked from the envelope by a gurning Jools Holland? So this isn’t always a good thing: Roni Size (right) somehow won with his D’n’B breaks album New Forms in the same year that Radiohead were a shoe-in with OK Computer, an album often voted the best of the 1990s by critics and fans alike.

But no matter, because compared to the artistic flatline that runs through the sales-driven Brits, NMEs, MOBOs et al, the Mercury at least registers a pulse of vitality.

And to those who say the Mercury judging panel is too elitist, middle-class or London-centric, well you’re probably right on all three counts. They will comprise of the usual 40-something, self-congratulatory, media-savvy types we see cropping up on BBC4 music docs or in Observer picture bylines.

But while you might expect such a gaggle of chin-strokers to be insular or stuffy, and just plump for the last cool-sounding CD they heard at their friend’s dinner party in Primrose Hill, I actually think that Mercury panels have shown a remarkably open mind in years gone by.

The aforementioned genre diversity is one argument for this, and the southern bias claim is refuted by the fact that Scottish (or at least part-Scottish) bands have won twice: Primal Scream in 1992 and Franz Ferdinand in 2004.

In 2009 I'd argue the Mercury Prize has never been so important. We are in a recession. Record sales are in freefall and could sorely do with the boost. More importantly though, the endangered creature that is the British music journalist needs something to write about; a big, daft, glitzy party to make them feel important again, and unlimited free booze to consume. They’ll be out of their jobs this time next year, so who could deny them one last, all expenses paid blow-out?

On that note, perhaps someone should establish a Scottish version. And invite us.

"There’s no need for artists to tussle like leotard-wearing Neanderthals"


By Billy Hamilton

My gripe with music awards isn’t the mutual back-slapping that accompanies these gong bestowing jamborees. Nor is it the self-congratulatory high fives dispensed by industry executives who've craftily wheeled in a few more bucks during notoriously dry months. In fact, my rancour isn’t even concerned with ex-Kenickie wench Lauren Lavern (below) fronting almost every music ceremony in the UK like a cod-faced Jonathan Ross.

Lauren LaverneNo, I’m afraid my pique is gunning for the concept itself.

Y’see, the notion of music as a competition is absurd; a complete abstraction that defies logic. Think of the most successful scenes of the last five years - Baltimore, Montreal, LA, Glasgow. All unmistakably different in both lifespan and ethos, but all founded on one common denominator: an industrious hub created by a core of interlocking bands. There was no rung-climbing aspirations, no overbearing hegemony that dictated the needy few; each was fashioned by a united collective progressing towards a single goal.

So why forge a competition from it?

There’s no need for artists to tussle like leotard-wearing Neanderthals pantomimically playing out a musical Royal Rumble. Challenge each other by all means, but to go mano-a-mano for an award that, ultimately, does nothing but dissipate credibility and alienate fans is beguiling at best, bilious at worst. And, before you ask, yes, these bands have to agree (and many times pay) to be nominated. Awards ceremonies are not the natural order of things.

Let’s be clear, I’m no naive young pup with a rouge-tinted view of the industry. I know money keeps the big four [EMI, Warner, Sony and Universal] on their pedestal; which in turn ensures bands like Glasvegas and Kasabian maintain their penchant for humdrum space filler; which then feeds the PR men, DJs, hacks and whoever else slavers after crumbs from the top table.

But when even the Mercury prize – an award once considered the leftfield better of the Brits’ archetypal bumchumming – nuzzles up with a former sponsor of England's premier football league, the aching reality of these self-serving reacharounds becomes all too clear. Tonight’s winners will be the music industry's Manchester United; a band gearing up for bigger battles at home and abroad. The rest? Well, we all know what happened to Newcastle United last season.

Music awards: good or bad? You tell us...

And if you're really bothered at all, join us on Twitter tonight for a good old moan as the result is announced. Follow @under_the_radar

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Thursday, 20 August 2009

Editorial: Can unsigned bands go it alone?

gramophoneRemember what music was like 'B.I.' (before internet, pictured right)? Before file sharing, iTunes, MP3 blogs, Last FM and Spotify, not to mention social networks like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter.

A time when the only outlets for new music were record shops, radio stations and gigs, and when bands were reliant on the music magazines and newspapers to spread the word on their latest single.

And what did these outlets have in common? They were easy to commercialize. CDs, radio playlists and gig tickets can all be quantified, controlled and monetized. Nothing slipped between the cracks, and the record labels were the custodians of the cashflow and the message, taking their sizeable cut of the profits.

How times change. In today's wired world a band can expose their first rudimentary recordings to the listening public within days or weeks of forming. Album sales have tanked, record shops have vanished and some of the best music magazines have ceased to exist (or remain relevant).

This would appear to indicate a power shift away from the corporations. But is it as simple as that, and is it really possible for a musician to achieve career-sustaining success without the backing of a record label?

Canadian band Metric decided to self-release their fourth album this year. Fantasies peaked at a respectable #6 in their native album chart, and guitarist Jimmy Shaw said at the time: "We might go down in flames, or it might be the best move ever. Either way it will have been on our terms, and that for us is success.”

And as The Guardian's music blog reported, London band The Boxer Rebellion recently self-released their comeback single 'Evacuate' and sold over half a million downloads on iTunes. That success led to a new kind of deal, not with a label but with retailer HMV. In effect, the high street chain invested in the band, paying for a physical release and funding the promotion in return for a cut of revenue and a string of exclusive in-store gigs.

The other side-stepping option is to set up your own label. The Futureheads' career may have gone off the boil, but a couple of years ago they set an example to other bands languishing on a major's roster by setting up Nul Records. True, they already had two records behind them, and most unsigned acts can't just summon such finance, but at least they showed that labels can be bypassed with a bit of hard work and self-belief.

Or can they? A popular path for many unsigned bands these days is to record a self-financed debut LP or EP, send it off to carefully chosen shops and journalists, and secretly hope that the word-of-mouth buzz reaches a label scout. Frightened Rabbit's Sing the Greys led to a deal with Fat Cat and the album's reissue, and it's doubtful whether the Scottish indie-rockers would have been able to achieve the transatlantic success they now enjoy without the marketeers, gig bookers and miscellaneous hype stirrers that a label can provide.

Alun WoodwardChemikal Underground founder and former Delgados man Alun Woodward (now flying solo as Lord Cut-Glass, pictured right) was pragmatic when we asked him whether bands can really do it themselves:

"I think the answer to the question is yes but only if you had a management company acting like a record company, in which case the answer is actually no, because you have basically started a new record label. As for a new band making an album, putting it up on iTunes and generating a career, I don't think it is feasible."

Another argument against self-releasing is based on perception. Often it's the most hard-working, self-promotional bands who become the most wearisome. We don't necessarily want to hear musicians tell us why we should buy their album. We just want them to get on with making music and let the media take care of the hyperbolic chatter.

It's something to do with protecting music's status as an artform, not an enterprise. Bands who ceaselessly promote themselves might attract the right kind of attention, but they also risk becoming public irritants.

Today there are more ways than ever of making a living out of music if you're good enough...

1. You can remain unsigned and retain complete independence, although you'll need to have a dedicated online fanbase and put in some hard graft of your own.

2. You can pay to record your first release with the hope that a discerning indie label comes along and sends you on your way to a wider audience.

3. If you have a blatantly commercial streak, you can hold out for one of the 'big four' (EMI/Sony/Universal/Warner) and sign away your credibility in exchange for corporate muscle and a fast track to the mainstream.

There is fourth option however. Forget the money, make the music you want to make, and to hell with the career plans.

Words: UtR

Can a band forge a career without a record label?
Are record labels hopelessly clinging on to an outdated business model?
Can endless self-promotion put you off an artist?


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Wednesday, 29 July 2009

UtR editorial: The sharp end of the hatchet job

In a recent On the Radar profile, Andrew Cowan of Glasgow band Lyons suggested a blanket of hyperbole is smothering Scotland's music scene. His gripe was that a lack of media criticism has spawned arrogant acts ill-equipped to do battle outside the country's forgiving climes. It was a fascinating point and one that’s had UtR towers reverberating to raised voices ever since.

In its short lifespan, UtR’s raison d'etre has been to provide a platform upon which the very best new music can be heard. Critique has never played a part in our remit; the focus gravitates towards up-and-coming artists gaining a voice in a medium increasingly interested in ABC fluctuations and advertising rates. Don’t get us wrong, we’re by no means a philanthropic entity, we’d just prefer to make like Dr. John and accentuate the positive rather than linger in a mire of doom and gloom.

But Cowan’s point has got us scratching our craniums while pondering the question: Is anyone really benefiting from this parochial trumpet-tooting?

Local media is full of well-intended sorts eager to give bands a foot into the music industry’s infuriatingly bolted door. Over the course of their [cough, splutter] careers every Scottish music hack will encounter an editorial mailshot commanding an agreeable stance on bands north of the border. Subsequently, every scribe will have the joy of turning out flabby, opinionless copy that says nothing and means even less.

In the short term, this localised back-scratching achieves its goal: stirring up ripples of interest across the blogosphere by gifting bands positive soundbites to plaster on posters, CDs and the social-network site of their choice. But once hoodwinked punters rip aside this facade to expose a sea of crookery, the game is up: reputations are tarnished, careers are tattered, mothers are weeping.

Now, your average human being would probably agree that a one-star hatchet job on the latest unsigned upstarts is an exercise in futility: it can do irreversible damage to a band's prospects, while making the writer, the editor and the magazine or blog in question public enemy number one in the local scene.

But it could also be argued that a well-reasoned, constructive piece of criticism, no matter how damning, might force a mediocre band to re-evaluate what they're doing, go away and come back making better music. OK, in some cases it might drive them to give up the music game altogether, but would that be such a tragedy if their output really was so bland/derivative/tiresome?

For us at UtR, critique v commendation is a stickler.

While we're constantly excited by an array of new acts, for every gem we uncover there are at least ten duds. The solution for us is to be as selective as possible when choosing the bands we feature. At the risk of coming across like pompous gits, we value our reputation and, more importantly, we value YOUR ability to sniff out the good from the cack. And while personal taste always plays a part in this debate, we would never promote an artist without agreeing (or at least having a good punch-up) about their worth.

The big question is: Are we doing the right thing?

Words: UtR

Debate: do you think unsigned bands are fair game for the critic, or should they be spared the media guillotine?

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