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Innovation? Part lies, part heart, part truth, part garbage.

September 23, 2012

Just a year ago, 21 September 2011, R.E.M. surprised us, announcing that they were calling it a day as a band. Having released their 15th studio album, Collapse Into Now, and after 31 years together, R.E.M. wanted to walk into the twilight with the best of their music following them. As Michael Stipe elegantly put it …a wise man once said ‘the skill in attending a party is knowing when it’s time to leave’. You have to stop sometime. We’re as on top as we could be after 31 years, we’re all happy and content in our personal lives and with each other, so why not underline the career right now and say, ‘This is it’.

George Bernhard Shaw wrote Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people, and for me this captures the essence of R.E.M., they were as pioneering and innovative as any band in the last 30 years. As Andy Warhol said, They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself. Not only did they influence the course of rock music, they also sustained an inspired creativity for almost two decades, something that the career retrospective brings into focus. It’s certainly hard to think of another band as capable of reconciling apparent opposites – power and gentleness, euphoria and melancholy – within a single song.

The band came into the world with the single Radio Free Europe, and the LP Murmur introduced their sound: lyrically murky, musically open-eyed, and, invigorated. Their dreamy origins were always confronted by an enlivened musical attack. The strong rhythm section of Mike Mills and Bill Berry laid a foundation for Peter Buck’s guitar playing, by turns plangent and driven. Michael Stipe’s resonant voice and mysterious warbling made the songs at once unfathomable and compelling. You listened hard. R.E.M. sold more than 75 million albums worldwide. They secured a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007 and left behind albums that rank with the best of their era. The band got to do what few can claim: watch an artistic revolution they helped spark change the world. Not bad.

Similar to any era, you can make the case for their musical brilliance or its musical deficiencies. But it’s certainly true that there was a decided move away from authenticity, from the rise of drumless, guitarless bands like Depeche Mode or Pet Shop Boys, to a general tendency toward artifice from the period’s biggest stars, from Michael Jackson to Madonna. I always felt, once the drum machines had made drummers unnecessary, bring on the lead-singer machines. But the sound of R.E.M., particularly their earlier stuff, is flat-out magical and authentic, genuine human music. It’s impossible to separate from my personal feelings and timeline, but it’s still a sound that’s a combination of introspection and innovation of my life in the last 30 years. Philosophically they were inculcated in punk and its discontents. Issues like integrity, self-determination, and aesthetics were involved in talking and thinking about the band in a way that’s quite foreign now.

Over time they started delivering remarkably strong records. The band was consistently delivering killer songs with ever-more-obvious mastery, their sales grew and the band eventually had a fairly significant radio hit, The One I Love, while still on the indie label I.R.S. This was a big deal at the time. In 1992 they released Automatic for the People, arguably its best album. Stipe’s lyrics come down to earth enough to convey meanings but also resonate abstractly the way they always did. The high point is an aching and resonant tune, Nightswimming, which Stipe sings movingly over a lovely Mills piano track.

While R.E.M. continued to make excellent music after they broke into the mainstream, those early releases had an incomparable sense of mystery and magic about them with enigmatic lyrics. Michael Stipe’s lyrics ranged from seemingly significant turns-of-phrase to cryptic streams-of-consciousness to incomprehensible mutterings. While often an almost random assortment of words, my favourite part of the band was always Stipe. The song writing became more sophisticated, creating gorgeous songs like Losing My Religion. Musically speaking, the distinctive mandolin rift on Losing My Religion contributed to a somewhat-unlikely massive international hit. Its success was bolstered by extensive video play from MTV, for whom R.E.M. were something of a flagship band in terms of the ‘alternative’ music that they liked to support, and again marked them as innovators of their craft.

Let’s be honest. When bands you love break up, the emotions it brings often have as much to do with their place in your life, in the era ending and the passing of time, as it does in the meaning of them not creating any music any more. And so, even though R.E.M. has finally broken up, twenty four years after I first fell for them, underlining not only their life but mine, I can only imagine how hard it is for the band members to wrap their heads around a retirement from something that they were lucky enough to be able to retire from.

So whilst R.E.M.’s novelty, invention and creativity made them stand out for 31 years, setting and surviving trends in the music market, alongside this there have been radical, game-shifting innovations within the music industry itself. I only have to consider the devices I’ve used to listen to their music over the last 30 years to and look at where we currently are in terms of trends and platforms to appreciate this.

Starting with black vinyl 45s and 33s, to pre-recorded cassettes, music taped off the radio, my own compilation cassettes, then of course CDs and mp3 digital formats. Headphones like over-sized ear muffs, tiny personal headphones. Music Centres to Stack Systems with more cables and flashing lights than an air-traffic control system, midi-systems, then Walkmans, mp3 players, iPod, iPod nanos…from big to small, fixed to mobile.

Remember CDs? No? Well blame Shawn Fanning. Fanning was the Napster developer who took on the might of the music industry and developed one of the first peer-to-peer file sharing platforms. Napster eventually lost a court battle but the digital downloading war raged on. Now, it seems the music industry is on its knees, from recording contracts to distribution channels to pricing, changed forever by Napster. Gauging the popularity of music used to be so straightforward – the number of physical singles or albums sold by an artist compared to other artists determined who was top dog. Now, with downloading and streaming permeating cyberspace, it’s not quite so straightforward.

CD album sales were down 12.4% in the UK last year, whilst digital album sales were up a whopping 30.6%. And all this before we even consider music-streaming websites. With broadband speeds increasing all the time, it’s likely we’ll see far less downloading and much more streaming in the years ahead. In fact, the streaming revolution has been going on for years, you just might have missed it over the cacophony of the mighty iTunes.

Apple’s efforts in dragging the music industry into the C21st cant be understated.  iTunes came to the fore and, in conjunction with its ground breaking iPod device, it genuinely (and legally) dragged the digital music movement forward by the scruff of its neck. Napster essentially did all the groundwork and secured a lot of free PR for the digital music revolution, but Apple found a way to properly monetise the technology. iTunes for me is the greatest technical innovation, its so clever but so simple to use.

Do you use Last.fm? The platform builds a detailed profile of each user’s musical taste through monitoring their listening habits across multiple platforms, including web-based radio stations, desktop and portable music players. This information is aggregated and displayed on each user’s profile page. The site offers a number of social networking features and can recommend and play artists similar to the user’s favourites. It’s a great way of discovering new music and for networking with other people of a similar musical persuasion. Last.fm follows the fast-growing ‘freemium’ model. Today, Last.fm has over forty million users in almost two hundred countries.

Since 2008, Spotify has been streaming music to the masses, and similar to Last.fm, follows a freemium model. Spotify gives you on-demand access to over 18 million songs and has over 15 million members, 20% of whom pay some sort of subscription. There are different modelsSpotify Open is free for all, but is restricted to five hours per week up to a maximum of 20 hours a month; Spotify Free has no listening restrictions, and is available by invitation only, then there is Spotify Unlimited and Spotify Premium, the more expensive option allows you to listen to music offline, offers mobile device compatibility, has better sound quality and also exclusive content. It’s a long way from 1877 when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph.

Back to R.E.M. Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage is their career anthology, and a great tag line around innovation. They successfully answered the question How do you stay weird if you also like singable songs? whilst being commercially successful across a time when consumer demand and consumption model changed dramatically.

They balanced commercial success and creativity, carved out a niche with personal, cutting-edge music. The band was unafraid to take risks, even when that wasn’t in its best interest. Look at Losing My Religion, released at a key point in R.E.M.’s ascent. If you’re a rising rock band looking for a breakthrough hit, you don’t immediately pick up a mandolin.

The group was a music video pioneer, R.E.M.’s music videos became staples of MTV in the 1990s. Losing My Religion ranks in the Top 20 of VH1’s list of Greatest Music Videos of All Time. Everybody Hurts was an aching, simple video, featuring Stipe walking through a highway traffic jam. Their videography will be as important to R.E.M.’s legacy as the band’s impressive song catalogue.

Someone once said you cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore. R.E.M had a restless desire to reinvent themselves with each record and create a discography in which each new entry had a distinct character. Live, they were stunning, a gig in Manchester with my then 10 year old daughter Katie on my shoulders being a lasting family memory. I couldn’t articulate why the music meant so much to me, any more than I could articulate what Michael Stipe was saying half the time, but it struck a nerve.

The world is changing very fast. Big will not beat small anymore, it will be the fast beating the slow. The key to success is for you to make a habit throughout your life of doing the impossible and often the untried. You may not have gone where you intended to go, but you may end up where you intended to be.

R.E.M. leave behind a formidable back catalogue that traverses numerous styles and phases, and in these times of music industry flux it’s perhaps not too melodramatic to wonder if bands with this kind of longevity are a dying breed. Innovation is the mind set we all need to put a ding in the universe.

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