Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Explosion chaos in Bournemouth town centre

The pensioner and student-attracting seaside resort Bournemouth was rocked by an enormous explosion at around 15:45pm this afternoon, inflaming fears of a terror attack on the iconic Bournemouth Tourist Office on Westover Road. Eyewitnesses in the Portman House building report a total loss of power for at least 1.8 seconds, before all eyes were drawn irresistibly across the 6th floor and out to sea - where, in between the eyes and the sea, a charcoal black plume of smoke had risen quite suddenly around 100 feet into the air, towering above the rest of the town centre skyline.

The cloud of black smoke dissolved as quickly as it had appeared, replaced by wispy white funnel that was soon barely discernible in the fading grey afternoon light. Further attacks - sorry, burnt out fuse boxes - were not reported, though the town and indeed the entire nation will sleep uneasily tonight while fierce rumours abound that Al-Queda, Muslims, Iran, the US and the Irish are behind this reign of fear.

The centre of Bournemouth was brought to a standstill as the thick smoke engulfed the surrounding area and turned a Wednesday afternoon into night, lit up only by the raging force of an 11,000 volt fireball that terrorised helpess shoppers and countless pigeons for over 4 hours.

What really happened is this: an 11,000 volt electricity sub-station did actually explode, in one burst of flame and puff of smoke, and a tree caught fire to render itself the only casualty of the drama. In typically hackneyed fashion, the Daily Echo website commented unhelpfully on the 'knockout' blow which has left parts of Bournemouth, including surrounding shops and the stream running through the nearby gardens, without power. Rumour has it the tree was unwisely lighting up a cigarette while leaning over the electricity station, though official sources have refused to confirm whether this was an attempt at suicide.

The point here, of course, is not the irony of my blog but the disappointing conclusion and reality to what seemed from where we were, for a few minutes at least, a genuinely frightening proposition: the lights going out, black smoke appearing just across town, concern on people's faces. Maybe I've been watching too many trailers for Cloverfield. But as the entire power running to a building housing some 1,000 people failed utterly, and in the immediate confusion what looked like the aftermath of a bomb appeared starkly out of the window, there was a slight air of unease and mystery that was founded on unknowing, guesses and confusion. A desire for excitement, the thrill of potential horror, the possibilities far more interesting than the probable explanation would be.

So, investigative journo that I am, I walked down to the gardens in search of the facts, to be greeted by one policeman, some Do Not Cross tape flapping lamely in the wind and two men in fluorescent jackets with 'Electricity' on them looking down a hole. Wet leaves and fast-disappearing foam dampened the pavement. A few shoppers were still milling around - in fact the only thing that seemed to be closed was the Tourist Office itself. "Show's over" was never more appropriate. And, if you've read this all the way through, you're probably wondering if it even began. But if I'd stated that at the blog's opening, it wouldn't have made such a good story. And maybe that's the point.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Music for 2008

My internet's just about to be cut off, as we've "forgotten" to pay the bill, so I thought I'd get some blogging in before it dies for 4 days or so. I posted about New Year's Resolutions last year, and I've decided to try and be more active in my blogging as a resolution for this year, so I won't bother with the boring details of my new aims of keeping fit and healthy.

Instead, I thought I'd whack out some details on music for this year. First I'll get a few recommendations out of the way: Foals, We Are The Physics, Los Campesinos!, Operator Please, Bombay Bicycle Club, Duffy, Black Kids, Crystal Castles. All of these are making great, exciting new music and are for the large part stupidly young. Which is a good thing. Forget Coldplay, Hard-Fi, The Twang, Kasabian, Snow Patrol, Razorlight, MOR stuff like that, and search out some of these for a refreshing taste of new music.

2008 is likely to see yet more innovations and irrevocable changes to the music industry than last year. We saw the incorporation of downloads into official charts and sales figures, saw how the opportunity seemed to glisten for every struggling unsigned band going, saw how this new avenue could be exploited through careful campaigns - Chris Moyles made Billie Piper's Honey to the B get to number 17 in January '07 even though it had originally been released in 1998, while Koopa became the first unsigned band to have a top 40 hit through their relentless download campaign - and then saw how smoothly record companies and online music stores were able to capture the market with considerable and unquestioned ease. In light of how, just 3 or 4 years ago, the big record labels were bemoaning the rise of music downloading and file sharing, the shoe certainly seems to be on the other foot now.

But music, in my opinion, is getting ever more fragmented. When MySpace first emerged, bands that had 25,000 friends were heroes, the power of the underground, the shining examples of good, unsigned new music. But already, MySpace has lost its voice: there are probably a hundred thousand bands on MySpace now - and a lot of these will have 25,000 fans. Yet they'll still be unsigned, and unnoticed. Conversely, multi-million selling acts with big record label backing will have quickly cottoned on to the online phenomenon, and will gain double as many fans as the best unsigned band around in no time, through their backing and support from label channels. The smaller bands have had what should rightfully be 'their' medium descend into a free-for-all, with scope for capitalist-like gains and losses.

The competition for real-time music listening for free on sites like MySpace, as opposed to the non-real-time transaction of actually paying for a CD/download, and listening to it once it's purchased, is also too large. The internet has become congested with a thousand great new bands vying for the same fans, the ones that want that new music buzz, the excitement of finding a new fresh band that no one else really knows. But in the ever-quickening pace of modern technological life, staying loyal, or at least staying in one place, is too lazy and worryingly easy to appear out of touch. Bands are constantly having to produce, to innovate, without the financial resources to do so successfully and competitively, to appeal to the internet consumer, without any tangible reward. It's all very well the Guardian Art pages recommending 10 unsigned acts for 2008 - people aren't going to wait patiently for them to take their time to produce a quality debut LP. They want results straight away, and if not offered, there are 100 unsigned bands good enough, and just waiting, to be recommended elsewhere.

The other area in which the signed and established artists hold a major advantage is in the purchasing of mp3s. Admittedly an unsigned act might have a great track record so far, but why take a risk buying their latest EP when it might be a let down? Why not listen to it for free on their MySpace? Meanwhile, you know what you're likely to get with an established band, so forking out just £0.79p for their new song is bound to be great value. This leads to a situation whereby, for example, Iron and Wine's latest album is available to listen to in full, for free, on his MySpace page, while Red Hot Chili Peppers can suffice with 4 one-minute long song excerpts on theirs. The lengths that up and coming artists have to go to to make strides on the internet is now almost as tough as getting signed through someone liking your demo. The internet might well be the world's most democratic medium, but democracy still needs its leaders and rulers.

So it seems to me that music careers are short-term in the modern world. Who released a debut album last year that you could genuinely tout to being the next Radiohead, REM or even Oasis? By that, I mean a band who will have a decade or more of success, a success that contains several acclaimed albums in a number of years greater than the number of albums, and who will even be given the time to earn the chance to do so? The only example that springs to my mind for a modern band achieving this is Coldplay. Seriously. You might not like them, but the fact is they've had 3 huge albums, and a 4th is guaranteed to be in the pipeline and will only be released when they're happy with it. With new bands, record labels are so caught up in snaffling each Next Big Thing that the Current Big Thing is left in the cold to fend for itself in coming up with the notorious difficult second album. Success is fleeting, and nowadays, seems more subjective than ever. Are The Ting Tings going to be successful because they're being widely regarded now as one of the bright stars for 2008? If they get dropped from their label after one album and are unsigned by the summer of 2009, will they think of themselves as a success? I highly doubt it.

If anything, the rise of the online music industry has segmented the audience further and may in fact lead to a recession in opportunity for new bands like Los Campesinos!. Art is held by all its lovers in their hearts for personal aesthetic reasons and reaches real emotion for those who let it. And a personal sense of this can be gained online: there is something inherently romantic and self-rewarding in being part of a clandestine fan base of a certain band, an appeal which is all too easily propagated through websites and online communities, feeling that connection through the egalitarianism of the internet that our personal interaction and support makes a difference. (It doesn't, much). But this creates a group mentality, a need to compare and contrast with other artists of similar stature, a reason to find faults with other people who are on the same level as your favourite band. Online consuming of music has become a matter of taste insofar as who you like, and when you like it, is more important than what you like, and why. As I've said, it is hard to stay loyal when so much more is going on, and trend followers jumping from one thing to the next leave less behind to remember the bands who once 'were', and divide an audience who should be embracing all of this exciting equal opportunity phenomenon into micro groups of support that hold no power to speak of to offer the bands they love.

I've not even touched on the qualities in possessing a CD as opposed to iTunes telling you you now own the YouthMovie Soundtrack Strategies album, but it's 9 minutes past 2am and I have to be up in 5 hours for work. I'll leave that for another time.