Saturday, 15 November 2014

Serial: Could the crime podcast solve the case for radio's future?

Serial host Sarah Koenig
Ambridge’s cockerels could soon be shrieking their final crow, with former Home Secretary David Blunkett, saying he “was losing the will to live” over BBC Radio 4’s The Archers' plot lines this week. But the phenomenal worldwide success of new podcast Serial
may signal a changing of the guard in audio entertainment as millions of listeners wait on tenterhooks for today’s edition.

Serial, a spin-off from US radio show This American Life, is hosted by former Baltimore Sun journalist Sarah Koenig who sets out the case for and against Adnan Syed, who was convicted of the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999, aged just 17. Koenig turns the case like a Rubik’s cube in attempting to discern the student's killer, guiding listeners through holes in the conviction and Syed’s story.

Listeners have taken to Reddit to attempt to solve the case and are hosting listening parties for each episode.

Serial producer Dana Chivvis tells me the conclusion is not set in stone: “We have a vague idea, but we also know we could uncover some key piece of information tomorrow, and the whole thing could take a sharp turn. Or not.”

With many in the UK coming to Serial late, this thriller has triggered a spate of binge listening amongst commuters and those attacking the household chores. Marathon DVD boxset and streaming sessions are now a firm part of our televisual culture, but could this be the tipping point for radio and podcasting?

“This is the first break-out podcast,” argues Matt Deegan, creative director at radio consultancy Folder Media. “Serial could be to podcasting what House of Cards was to Netflix.”

Chivvis adds: “People want to binge listen because they want to be able to immediately scratch that itch of ‘what's gonna happen?’ But also because it’s so engrossing to live inside the world of this story, the same way you don’t want to look up from a really good book or go to the bathroom in the middle of an epic movie.”

Serial is not the only podcast charming hordes of fans keen to consume its wares in one gorge. Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode’s long-running BBC Radio 5 live film review show treats podcast listeners to exclusive content and regularly reports missives from listeners stocking up on episodes for long haul jaunts to Japan or Himalayan treks.

“We often get emails from listeners who have discovered us three weeks before and listened to all 300 episodes,” laughs Helen Zaltzman, whose Answer Me This podcast has won a clutch of awards. “Consuming large quantities in one sitting is one of the attractions.

“Video streaming sites were originally worried that putting whole series out at once would kill the sense of anticipation around new episodes. But if you look at Orange is the New Black, people are still dissecting it online months later.”

Radio listening figures remain healthy but the popularity of the traditional drama serial is in question. Podcasters are trying to re-invent the medium and have found their own darling – Welcome to Night Vale.

The deliberately weird drama is set in the fictional town of Night Vale and presented in the manner of a local news broadcast. First released in 2012, its popularity stepped up last year when fans took to Tumblr to share artwork of how they imagined characters, including a levitating cat, would look. It now enjoys more than 150,000 downloads an episode and the show's creators are amid a sold out European tour.

Meanwhile, Zombie podcast We're Alive has enchanted a legion of fans keen to have their brains munched by its audio delights.

Amazon’s Audible, the established player in the online audiobooks market (which also began sponsoring Serial this week), is also making waves, commissioning original content on everything from naughty romance to crime dramas.

But is a Lovefilm-style audio model a commercially appealing proposition? “Audio is still cheaper for advertisers and if they see the success of Serial, they may be tempted in,” says Deegan. “In the US, listeners are also used to stations asking for donations to support high quality speech radio.” Indeed, podcast network Radiotopia is steaming towards success in a $650,000 Kickstarter campaign to release a raft of shows including an edition of The Truth by Groundhog Day screenwriter Danny Rubin.

The radio industry has its ear pressed to the speaker attempting to disseminate the impact of Serial, but one question hangs heaviest in the air, who did kill Hae Min Lee?

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Buck 65 at the 100 Club: The chirpiest heartbreak you ever did see

I'll keep this short and sweet as Buck 65's place as ShadowPlay's All Time Favourite Artist is well documented and firmly assured*. A surprisingly chipper Richard Terfry was on fine form at London's historic 100 Club this week.  

A short chat at the merch stand prior to the gig confirms he remains the affable, charming and funny soul we've come to know and love over the last two decades (well, one in my case. It was heartwarming to find he remembered my favourite ever interview at the Rescue Rooms, Nottingham with him in 2004). On seeing Buck at The Garage in Islington last year I wondered whether his forthcoming album would be his Blood on the Tracks, documenting, as it does, his break up with his wife. 

Terfry had come back from tour to find a note saying 'don't forget to feed the cat' and his wedding ring. And indeed the record, Neverlove is a cathartic effort ('That's the Way Love Dies' and  'Love Will Fuck You Up' are standouts) but still with Buck's inimitable perky style ingrained within it. It combines his usual hip-hop/folk style with his popiest edge yet and, in all but a couple of cases, is complemented well by a series of female vocalists. What's more, it's his best outing since 2003's celebrated Talkin' Honky Blues, mixing clever wordplay, some well worked duets and effortless changes in tone. 

Before the set, he tells me he's had to talk a lot about his split from his wife in conducting media interviews for the new album. It's been like a psychoanalysis session, he explains. Indeed, he sought help for panic attacks experienced after his divorce. 

But his 100 Club performance displays little of this torture. Dressed in a sharp suit, Buck is his usual playful self, making quips about laundry and culminating his set with a dance suggesting there's an explosion in his crotch while singing about having cake and sex on his birthday. There's snatches of crowd favourites including Indestructible Sam and Roses and Bluejays and ultimate classics including Centaur and Wicked and Weird are given full run outs. He largely steers clear of the more mournful songs from the album and uses his duets with Tiger Rosa to muck about and encourage her to spank him with her belt. He drifts off to remind us he's a great scratch DJ then nips back to the mic to tell a funny story about a girl downing a glass of milk. 

Buck 65, whether in his guise as a radio host or simply as Richard Terfry, a man who has been through a lot, remains one of the most talented musicians on the planet. With his latest offering, he's also reminded us he remains one of the most musically relevant. 

*Oh ok, yes I failed to keep it short and sweet.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

A breathy Scotsman is better than any melody

Arab Strap's Love Detective pleasantly re-emerged in my head from the blue this week, but is paranoia an underused musical emotion? A few obsessive re-listens attested what the internal stereo had suggested, that this slice of weirdness - from The Red Thread and released as a single in 2001 - is compelling listening. 

The short story of a man who discovers his partner's sex diary in a red cashbox is as unusual in its delivery as its dark content. Aidan Moffat is in fine form, sounding deliberately breathy and removed he carefully delivers each sentence over an incongruously jangly, upbeat backing. 

The combination of an intriguing story and its status as just-about-a-song works well. It also makes you wonder why - despite loads of great music being made on drugs - paranoia and jealously feel under-used (with notable exceptions like Jolene, suggestions welcome). This sits among Arab Strap's finest work of their 11-year career, a mixtape stalwart and a remarkable piece of musical innovation.

Arab Strap - Love Detective (lyrics)

We slept in this morning and she had to get ready in a hurry - no time for her usual attention to detail - and she ran out the door, slamming it behind her, leaving her keys swinging and jangling. I stayed in bed until I heard the downstairs door shut, then peeked through the blinds and as soon as she was out of sight, I went for the keys. She never tried to make a secret of the box or the fact it was locked or even where she kept it. But as I said at the time - "If you've nothing to hide, why hide it?" 

It's one of those wee red cashbox things and she keeps it in a drawer by the bed, under some pictures and books. Every key she has is on the same keyring - it took me a while to find the right one. I don't know, I suppose I've had my doubts for a while. There's been hushed phone-calls virtually every night, her friends stop talking when I come in the room and they look at each other, and I don't know, it's just a feeling. Anyway, I eventually found the right key and it fitted perfectly in. I put the box on top of the bed and opened it up... 

There were these pictures of friends and ex's, letters, postcards, doodles, nothing bad - and then I found some sort of sex diary and I went to the latest entry. It explicity detailed a recent adventure up the park with a boy she said she had forgotten about... 

And it got worse as it went on. The dates never made sense, there were people I had never even heard of. Eventually I had to stop reading it because I started to feel sick. So I put everything back the way I found it, shut the drawer and phoned you. See, I don't know what to do. I keep having fantasies about leaving her dictaphone under the pillow or following her when she goes to work. I've been lying about where I'm going, just in case I can bump into her. 

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Iggy Pop: Seven lessons for music labels, musicians and drug addicts

The ‘godfather of punk’ Iggy Pop was lauded this week for his beguiling and amusing delivery at the fourth annual John Peel lecture in Salford, discussing “free music in a capitalist society”.
In an event marking the tenth anniversary of the legendary Radio 1 DJ’s death, the colourful former Stooges frontman laid out his view on the machinations of the music industry to an audience of its executives. Iggy has always been someone I admired for doing what he wants and the manner that fits him, an attitude which appears to be seeping out of modern music as musicians fully understand marketing techniques and their perception from day one. 
His sage advice for his audience of music advice included these highlights:
Don’t force music on the public
Pop hit out at tech giant Apple, which he chuckled that he had bought cheap shares in in 1992, over its controversial U2 giveaway. He said: “The people who don’t want the free U2 download are trying to say, ‘Don’t try to force me,’ and they’ve got a point. Part of the process when you buy something from an artist, it’s kind of an anointing, you are giving that person love.
“It’s not the only point, these are not bad guys. But now everybody is a bootlegger and not so cute as before and there are people out there just stealing stuff and saying, ‘Don’t try to force me to pay,’ and that act of thieving will become a habit, and that’s bad for everybody.”
Stay away from the drugs
A surprise piece of advice from the man who has indulged a fair bit during his 67 years on earth, Pop warned music execs off the drugs. “Stay away from drugs … and [TV] talent judges,” he chuckled. He also recounted an encounter with Virgin tycoon Sir Richard Branson when the music label boss first tried to sign him up. “He was very softly spoken but I’d just smoked a joint and couldn’t make a decision,” he chuckled of Branson who “created a superior culture” at Virgin during his only full-served out record contract.
Don’t expect your customers to have any morals
The gravelly-voiced Pop warned that electronic devices had “estranged people from their morals, making it easier to steal music than to pay for it”. He said of the new, digitally empowered consumer: “We are exchanging the corporate rip-off for the public one, aided by power nerds, kind of ‘computer Putins’. They just want to get rich and powerful.
“Now the biggest bands are charging insane ticket prices or giving away music before it can flop in an effort to stay huge and there is something in this huge thing that kind of sucks.”
Don’t depend on music sales
“If I had to rely on what I get from sales I’d be tending bars between sets,” he said. “The biggest bands are charging insane ticket prices or giving away music before it can flop in an effort to stay huge. And there’s something in this huge thing that kind of sucks.”
Forget the devil is in the detail
Pop described money as a ‘detail’, warning that its importance should not be overstated in being creative. “I worked half of my life for free,” said Pop. “The masters of the record industry kept complaining that I wasn’t making them any money. When it comes to art, money is an unimportant detail. It just happens to be a huge unimportant detail.”
He said of the music industry that it was a “pond that is wide, but very shallow. Nobody cares about anything too deeply except money. Running out of it and getting it.”
Don’t resent the downloaders
Pop claimed those searching music out for free were merely “bored” and that, while stealing is wrong, he didn’t blame those who work hard searching out art for free. “There is a general atmosphere [in the music business] of resentment, pressure, kind of strange perpetual war, and I think prosecuting some college kid because she or he shared a file is a lot like sending somebody to Australia a couple of hundred years ago for poaching his lordship’s rabbit. That’s how it must seem to poor people who just want to watch a crappy movie for free,” he said.
Don’t be a music industry executive
Pop risked alienating his audience with a broadside against their type. He said of music industry execs: “You don’t want to know these guys. They usually come over from legal or accounting, they’re thinking of number one. Avoid them, if you’re an artist, they will make you feel good or suicidal.

"They can also make you really, really ubiquitous. When the company is your banker they will make you the Beverly Hill Hillbillies.”

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Column: The greatest musical transport stunts of all time

Few things are more enjoyable than trying to fit lots of colourful events into just 150 words, luckily this was what the Independent tasked me to do, with the below result:

Aphex Twin’s return after 13 years caused a buzz loud enough for Richard D James himself to sample. Not just because of the album Syro's musical content, but its marketing tactics. James floated a blimp featuring his logo over London and on a New York sidewalk. 

He joined an illustrious musical crowd in harnessing transport to exhilarate the masses. Pink Floyd flew a pig over Battersea Power Station in 2011 to emulate the cover of Animals (an original attempt in 1976 flew away) while Sony sailed a 10-metre-high Michael Jackson statue down the Thames in 1995. 
The Sex Pistols also took to the capital’s waterway to heighten the buzz around “God Save the Queen” in the Silver Jubilee summer, and their entourage were promptly arrested. Worth thinking carefully before that Hammond organ unicycle stunt, then.
Have I missed one? Please comment below or tweet me @alexshadowplay to let me know.

The column as it originally appeared in The Independent's Saturday magazine

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Guide: Madrid's arts and crafts shops

Delicate prints and clever handmade oddities dominate Madrid's thriving independent crafty stores. An eagerly consumed tour of the trendy Malasaña area's cute selection of outlets on my honeymoon quickly reveals this is something special.

Malasaña has all the hallmarks of areas dubbed trendy - dirty streets, plenty of graffiti (some great, some dire) and with a disturbing number of prostitutes. The area is well known as Madrid's hipster hive, rammed full of colourful cocktail bars and more burger joints than there are cows in Spain. But the style and number of great stores is remarkable. Here are a few:

La Antigua, Corredera Baja de San Pablo
A narrow shop stacked with delights, from handmade cards and patterned paper to clever DIY kits to make books and kitchenwares. The artwork of Lady Desidia, who pops up all over town, features heavily, most remarkably in her incredible light boxes, which showcase the carefully drawn Manga-style women of her pieces. A must visit.

Rughara, Corredera Alta de San Pablo
Despite describing itself as a 'concept store', this little shop decked out in neon string is unpretentious and fun to browse. Dominated by clothing, there's plenty of clever designs and Anna quickly snares a tortoiseshell necklace and a handmade leather purse and returns later for a hand painted plate. It hosts great tunes too, with Emiliana Torrini's catchy Jungle Drum getting me dancing.

La Intrusa, Corredera Alta de San Pablo
Specialising in clothes and bizarrely, jewellery featuring Playmobil characters, this light, airy store sucks away time as you browse its wares. Lady Desidia's light boxes make another appearance, as well as jars with lights within them shining through images of trees and plenty of other great ideas to inspire. Anna snaffles some earrings with lightening bolts on.

La Integral, Calle León
Away from Malasaña, this tiny record store and book shop is a must visit. It features an excellent selection of new vinyl from US alt country to a small but incisive collection of African compilations (an Afrobeat Airwaves LP could not be left in the shop). The store is a bit of a nerd's supermarket - everything from fanzines, lomography cameras, comics, and items with pictures of lomography cameras on complement the music. But it's well presented and does not feel like the standard issue quirky gift store evident elsewhere in Madrid and in London.

Despite La Integral, and a few other small record stores including enchanting funk, soul and r'n'b specialist Upbeat Records, I couldn't find a big independent music store to get my teeth into (albeit high street chain Fnac hosts a huge store). 

But Madrid is well worth a visit for its independent stores alone, and that's before you get to its world famous galleries, great bars, the buzzy San Miguel food market and grand opera house, in which Antony & the Johnsons put on a mesmerising performance while we were in town. Have I missed any? Feel free to comment below.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Video: How fanzines are thriving in a digital age

The thriving zine scene typified by new zines and more zine fairs has surprised even the most ardent zinesters in an internet age dominated by blogging and social media. Having previewed the event for The Independent here, I popped down to the DIY Cultures fair at the Rich Mix, Bethnal Green to chat to some of the ace fanzine makers in attendance for the capital's TV channel, London Live.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

The rise of the 'by request' set list

Joy Division legend Peter Hook is taking requests
It's incredible something with as dreadful a name as Napster had such a revolutionary impact on music consumption. The peer-to-peer file-sharing site, arguably the most mainstream one of its kind, gave music fans an unprecedented power over artists which the latter has been struggling to regain balance from ever since its launch in 1999. 

In retrospect, the developments that followed feel inevitable - the rise of paid-for downloading via iTunes, then streaming through, Youtube and Spotify and the move towards big bucks large gigs and insanely pricey festivals becoming the main money spinner. They have been accompanied by a torrent of other changes to music consumption from on demand radio to using social media. 

The prevalence of a new phenomenon - the 'by request' set - has been exemplified by this year's festival line ups. Metal giants Metallica are putting their set at Sonisphere, which takes place at Knebworth in July, to a public vote. The democratic gig will see fans polled on which songs they wanted to hear by getting an online code when they buy a ticket. The festival will also see Metallica joint-headline with Iron Maiden for the first time in the UK, quite a coup for the metal fest.

At Alt-Fest, Peter Hook & the Light will follow their set playing the entirety of Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures (another recently revived trend in performing whole records) with an encore picked by the fans. They will be able to vote from a selection of Joy Division tracks on Facebook for the six-song encore at the festival in Northamptonshire in August. 

Hook said: "Having played some 200 gigs with The Light now, I've found that the fans all have their own particular favourite tracks which they want to hear live. It's a great idea to throw some of the set list over to the people at Alt-Fest to see what they most want to hear us play." 

Hook's decision flies in the face of many musicians who - through fatigue at playing the same songs repeatedly or simply stubbornness - deliberately shun fan favourites. Neil Young assured crowds on his 1973 English tour of Tonight's the Night that they would hear some 'old stuff you've heard before' after he'd played his new record live in full, then promptly played the whole album in full again claiming the audience knew it by then - class. 
Back in the present, ShadowPlay favourite Buck 65 is among a raft of artists who regularly use Twitter to ask their audiences what they'd like to hear during that evening's gig. 

As social media brings fans and artists closer together than they've ever been, and gives artists more instantaneous feedback on which songs fans love, it's natural musicians are more mindful in composing sets. To my mind, there's no problem with it - it's just a more organised variation on calling out for a favourite tune live. But artists may need to take care they do not simply become karaoke acts, playing to fans' demands at every turn.

The balance of power has clearly well and truly shifted but musicians need to be given licence to have control over their performance. 

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Record Store Day 2014: London in photos

Record Store Day is a slightly different beast in the capital. There's plenty of queues, exclusive releases and in-store gigs but Soho provides an interesting, um, spin on the day. The streets were closed off on Berwick Street and Broadwick Street, the soundsystems and stages were out and there was even a smattering of sunshine.

Record Store Day has caused some controversy with over-worked pressing plants and fans who miss out on exclusives irritated by the constraints of the day. Personally, there were plenty of releases I would've loved to get my hands on but am happy to enjoy seeing my favourite shops rammed full of customers, wander round with a beer and nip in another day on one of my regular trips. I've written more on the subject for The Independent here. Here's a few pics, there's plenty more on Twitter here.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Podcasting: An intriguing medium

As podcasting marks its tenth anniversary, it's a useful time to reflect on the unique spoken word episodic medium. A self-confessed addict as well as a podcaster myself, I've always enjoyed the freedom they can bring to offer specialist radio shows on niche subjects. 

Podcasts like Answer Me This, The Football Ramble and Richard Herring's various offerings have allowed presenters to carve out a distinct voice for a dedicated audience. They also allows fans to build up an archive of shows to enjoy at their leisure. 

However, their long term future - with streaming speeds stepping up and little momentum behind promoting new 'casts from dominant technology giant Apple - is in doubt. I've written more on the subject for The Independent here.

And speaking of podcasts, it's a pleasure to welcome one of my oldest friends and music obsessive Mr James Lambert to my aural adventure, Desert Isolation Discs. You can hear which eight tunes he picked to take with him to survive in a desert by streaming it here or below or downloading the podcast here

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Desert Isolation Discs: Hello Thor co-founder Anders Knight

Barcelona-based record label head honcho and talented marketer Anders Knight is my latest guest over at sister blog Desert Isolation Discs. He became the lynchpin in the arts and culture scene of Nottingham when based there through his excellent stewardship of craft night Jumpers for Goalposts (my former charge), promoting gigs with Super Night, as co-host of the Pretty Dandy Flea markets or enticing us to watch great films at the Broadway cinema. 

His record label Hello Thor - co-founded with fellow friends of the blog Tom Whalley and Nick Lawford in 2008 - is host to a raft of exhilarating acts including Fists, We Show Up on Radar and Anxieteam. You can listen to the interview with Anders below.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Desert Isolation Discs: Designer and mother Heather Lawson

Over at our sister sister site Desert Isolation Discs we have a very special guest… my mother! She was part of the reason I set up the blog and our mutual love of hearing everyone's favourite eight tunes meant I couldn't not interview here for it.

Head over the blog for full more detail and full songs or listen to the interview below.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Hastings: A south coast snapshot

A trip to Hastings for a January pick-me-up proved just what the fun-doctor ordered at the weekend. I first visited the small town on the Sussex coast a couple of years ago to the incredulity of those from nearby who hadn't seen its charm underneath the multitude of pound shops and dilapidated seaside amusements. 

On my previous visit, we had to cut short our stay as our vintage mini looked in danger of being snowed in and on this occasion heavy wind and rain did their best to attack our bobble hats but not before enjoying the friendly locals and interesting sights. I mean, you even get to pass a bar named the 'Route 1066' en route! 

Hasting's charm is in the Old Town, effectively two roads - the High Street and George Street - in which antiques shops stuffed with great records and odd finds, book shops with stacks higher than their owners and plenty of great pubs can be found. I stayed at The Old Rectory, the sister bed and breakfast to Swan House, both of which are highly recommended, stylish and comfortable.

The Jerwood Gallery, a box-y shaped building which stands on the seafront, had opened since my last visit and the works contained within, taken from businessman and philanthropist John Jerwood's own collection were interesting if slightly patchy. The gallery was also a tad pricey and I was interested to spot signs outside for an amateurish but passionate protest site - The highlight was John Piper's The Churchyard which I found a fascinating mix of colour and movement. Here's a few snaps from my trip to the town where battle once commenced.

The AG Hendy and Co Home Store, which dates back to the 19th century, is a fascinating combination of incredibly well put together stylish products and an amazing rickety building. Just being within its wonky walls makes you feel happy.

AG Hendy and Co Home Store

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Julianna Barwick: Six reasons to love Brooklyn's finest

Brooklyn-based soundscape artist Julianna Barwick has been enchanting listeners with her abstract sound for four years. ShadowPlay takes a look at what's caught the ear of a global audience. 

1. Barwick's music is a combination of classic ethereal sounds which melt away like candy floss to the tongue and a more uncomfortable, mournful tone. Whether it's slowly shredding a violin or carefully introducing her piano, Barwick builds up incredible loops which prove mesmeric. 

2. Barwick first released a mini-album, Florine, in 2009 featuring more conventional song structures and built on it for her 2010 release, The Magic Place, which honed her reverb heavy sound. Her latest album, Nepenthe, gave her worldwide recognition and featured in plenty of end of year lists. Highlights included Labyrinthine and The Harbinger. 

3. She grew up in rural Louisiana and a farm in Missouri and, as the daughter of a preacher, allowed the choirs in her church to influence her music later in life. As a kid, she harmonised with random sounds like the echo emanating from a giant tree.

4. She translates her sound well live to leave audiences in her thrall. He she is playing Offing.

5. Barwick has worked with a fistful of musical royalty. From members of múm and string quartet Amiina to Sigur Rós collaborator Alex Somers, she's made a name for herself among the upper echelons of the aural establishment. Oh, and got to record in Sigur Ros' swimming pool studio, Sundlaugin.

6. Barwick has also worked with Radiohead, remixing their tune Reckoner in 2010. In turn, her work has been remixed by the likes of Diplo and Prince Rama.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Desert Isolation Discs: Betty in the Sky

Over at our sister site Desert Isolation Discs I've been lucky enough to host renowned podcaster Betty Thesky as she selects her favourite tunes of all time.

Betty has featured in USA Today, The New Yorker and even hosted her own BBC World Service documentary since hitting the air and the airwaves with her unique podcast. She is a flight attendant for a major US airline and recounts tales of her escapades in her addictive podcast Betty in the Sky with a Suitcase.

Head over to Desert Isolation discs to hear her selections.