Sorry, But This Just Isn’t Music – Coldcut vs The Charts

24:7 was a short-lived free London street press title that operated at the tail end of 1997 and early 1998.  At the time, there was nothing else quite like it in the market, but entering a market dominated by Time Out and supplemented by the growing power of the web, was always going to be a hard sell.  24:7 made it to seven issues, with an eighth in the bag, but pulled from the press.  In the space of a few short weeks, I went from casual contributor on the web column to Commissioning Editor to unemployed.  Nonetheless, it was an intense period of output as regards my writing, including interviews with Coldcut, Gus Gus, Robert Miles and J.C. Herz.

Fate dealt an interesting hand – with the premature demise of the title, the Coldcut piece was not published in 24:7.  However, having formed a bond with Coldcut’s label Ninja Tune (primarily thanks to the Art Director’s relationship with Hexstatic), they suggested that it could perhaps run in an edition of their label magazine, The Pipe.  They also commissioned two further pieces from me: an interview with label artist Chocolate Weasel – Mark Royal (aka T-Power) and Cris Stevens – and an article on the rejection of Coldcut’s single ‘Timber’ from the national charts due to its extended content on its CD.  In hindsight, we can clearly see that the issues Coldcut faced with the humble CD-ROM were simply the first tiny flourishes of a far greater panic and malaise that gripped the music industry shortly after the turn of the century, and which – as time is sure to attest – led to the biggest shakedown in its history.

The foresight herein is simply happenstance, rather than any rigorous crystal-ball gazing on my part, yet I can’t help but think that words like these have even greater resonance in today’s market: “The innovators and the artisans have always been the ones to stand alone at the far edge of progress and wait with impatience for the weighty bulk of the mainstream to catch up … the rate of change is now so incredible, that perhaps that breach is now too wide to be bridged. When the penny finally drops for the industry, the innovators will have moved on further still.”

The strange case of a music world crippled by terminal chart failure.

Remarkable to think that since 1998 poked its head out of its cold burrow many months ago, we have already discovered water on the moon and life on Jupiter, genetically engineered a cloned calf, effected photon teleportation and simultaneously disproved one of Einstein’s most fundamental of theories. Time, truly, is gaining momentum at an alarming rate and technology is sitting at the wheel, pulling out the throttle with its steel-toed boot firmly locked onto the accelerator.

There’s nothing wrong with this scenario per se, in fact – to some – this era is the most remarkable in this planet’s history. However, bringing up the rear in this ridiculously extended metaphor are those who stop to ponder over the ethics, the morals and the rules. They stall in their tracks to judge the rights and wrongs of any situation, without realising that the rest of the world is steaming further and further ahead. Of course we need markers and sceptics in order to keep us in some form of check, but invariably the wand of power is being held tightly by legislators who have an unfailing inability to cast their imaginations into the misty fog of the future. Thus we are left we a situation akin to the early days of the industrial revolution – the innovators battling the luddites, and ne’er the twain shall meet.

And such a war – you might be surprised to hear – is raging somewhere in the virtual nether regions of your own loveable music industry. You might think this as somewhat strange – the industry, after all, is traditionally built around advanced creative technologies, evident in the heaving, vast racks of digital audio equipment resplendent on stage during most live gigs and also in the steadily rampaging progress that music video has made over the last decade. However, the industry has been finally stumped by the simple notion that music is no longer something that you throw into your CD machine and just ‘play’. Music is now emerging into an arena where more than one sense organ being stimulated – the no-man’s land known as interactivity. You might have noticed the creeping influence of the “enhanced CD” sticker, blazoned on a growing number of CD singles. Such an “enhancement” usually takes the form of an additional single track of video and appears on the second of a two-CD set at the expense of a track of audio.

Not so with Coldcut’s most recent single release, Timber, which instead featured twelve audio tracks and eight video tracks over two separate CD singles. The running time of each CD fell within the limits for chart regulation monitored by the Chart Information Network (CIN), even when the length of each video track was taken into account. However, the BPI through CIN had previously decreed that, irrespective of running time, music that appears as video and not solely as audio must be confined to one track if it is to be eligible for entry into the chart. It seems that music formatted as exclusively audio will be readily welcomed into the chart fold, however utilising both sight and sound to create a singe package would appear to be a case of too much too soon. Charts exist for singles, albums, videos and software, but an attempt to move forward and merge such obviously compatible formats will deem a product ineligible for chart status.

“People aren’t used to buying music in this way,” claims Coldcut’s Matt Black, “they might be used to buying a Mr Bean video, they might be used to buying a seven inch single, but they have a problem putting the two things together. A VHS single tape isn’t a very attractive product whereas a CD is – and that’s the advantage of the CD format, you can give people what they want, plus you can also fit extra things on it.”

Of course, the wheels of administration and bureaucracy have classically moved at a rate of imperceptible knots, so perhaps we cannot expect the music industry as a whole to grab the baton and move onto the next stage of the relay. The innovators and the artisans have always been the ones to stand alone at the far edge of progress and wait with impatience for the weighty bulk of the mainstream to catch up. However, the rate of change is now so incredible, that perhaps that breach is now too wide to be bridged. When the penny finally drops for the industry, the innovators will have moved on further still.

Take, for example, the current state of world-wide music distribution. America’s Wired magazine already runs its own chart based on individual downloads from one music resource web site. What makes such a chart unique is that all the artists who submit full length tracks to the site are currently unsigned. Users are able to download tracks onto their hard drive and burn that directly onto a CD which can then be played back in the traditional manner. The public are therefore not only making their own tunes, but they are additionally taking distribution and manufacturing of music into their own hands. Sounds can also obviously be previewed before download, on something akin to a web based radio station where the user becomes the DJ. Instantly, we have a new, virtual music industry that exists in its entirety beyond any of the existing channels.

The chart, according to CIN, is “a listing of best selling recordings that can be accessed via all standard audio equipment”. The point clearly demonstrated by technological innovation is that the nature of playback is changing and is no longer exclusively the confines of the humble hi-fi. At the same time, the distribution and sale of music is also undergoing a radical evolutionary movement, such that the concept of the traditional record retailer may well also be redundant within the space of a few years, rather than decades. In order for the chart to remain as an accurate reflection of the tastes and behaviour patterns of music lovers nationwide, it too must take stock and effect some swift genetic manipulation. In Coldcut’s case, the forward-thinking faction of the creative industries may have lost one particular battle, but as we shall soon see, the innovation war has only just begun.

Stuart Buchanan