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European Writers' Parliament logo

European Writers' Parliament logo

As we queued for the morning’s baklavas at the European Writers’ Conference in Istanbul, I nodded at my distinguished colleague’s remarks. “Much of what is going on here is very international-literary-conference, PEN-protest standard. Statements are being made that could have been composed even before they turned up”. Then he scuttled off for a bitter coffee.

But I wasn’t going to join in his lofty disdain. I was happy to be the ingenue here, in this intriguing crowd, trying to be on “receive” much more than “transmit”. What I was beginning to sense was the sheer cultural heterogeneity of this place we call “Europe”. But also the common predicaments – from political to economic to stylistic – that beset the European writer.

In our commission on “Literature in the Digital Age”, what emerged was a picture of European writers as affected by the “digital divide” as any group in society – and perhaps more so, because of the explicit traditionalism on one side of the gulf. It was jaw-dropping to hear a minority of writers doggedly defend their right to love vellum paper, fountain pens, brutal old typewriters.

They praised how these ancient means of literary production compelled them to make important decisions about their prose: being unable to digitally cut-and-paste made their writing more urgent, raised the stakes. They demanded their right to solitude and concentration, to preserve the moment of witness, to be diligent crafters of language.

This was a transnational appeal, from Icelandics, Belgian-Lebanese, Germans, Muslim Turks. (The Macedonian poet mentioned tremulously in the last post actually delivered a lovely, subtle meditation on poetry as a “network of meaning”). But I couldn’t get too exasperated with those who wanted to shut out the buzz and twitter of the interactive world in order to wrestle soulfully with their prose.

Though his science is debatable, the US tech critic Nick Carr has sounded a useful warning about how deep reading might be under neurological threat from the permanent flicker and twitter of social media. And in terms of deep writing, I was reminded of James Kelman’s words that, compared to many other more collaborative and mediated art forms, “in prose fiction the freedom to ‘work honestly’ exists, although you may have to fight for it”.

It’s a good question: How can digital networks support the writer’s “freedom to work honestly”?

Perhaps one way would be to help the writer to work with no name at all. A charismatic young Turkish activist (who I won’t name) talked about French radical newspapers during WWII, like JP Sartre and Albert Camus’s Combat, publishing material anonymously in order to evade the reach of Nazi authorities. In his view, modern Turkish society needed a lot more of this “resistance writing”. He noted the Turkish state’s tendency (as exemplified by Penal Code 301) to “surround the Prime Minister and his party with a legal wall in order to protect him… You cannot write ‘Prime Minister’ and ‘traitor’ in the same sentence – it’s illegal.”

In order to evade the regulators and establishment, he continued, Turkish writers should give up the idea of “copyright” altogether on the web – “a text with no names speaking for all names, for all of those whose speech is being censored or suppressed”. Yet, as the very sharp William Wall from Ireland reminded us, we should suspect our cyber-idealism: the internet could all too easily become the ultimate means of social control, as much as it could be a platform for resistance writing. Not much engineering is required for every click, scroll, copy and paste – particularly in the age of cloud computing – to be centrally observed by the wrong forces.

The rest of us in the room (including myself) could be classed as digital-literary “reformists”, rather than either “luddites” or “resisters”. How do writers defend the democratic power of the open web, while also finding a way to get a revenue by exerting some kind of property ownership over their works? For musicians, this is decade-long argument – begun with Napster and Bit-Torrent and currently continuing with iTunes, Spotify and YouTube – which we’re only beginning to draw to some kind of conclusion.

The message I tried to convey from my own sector was that it might be possible, with some combination of collective licensing, good software and usable hardware, to rebuild some kind of money-stream through new distribution channels like the Kindle, iPad or future tablets. But the lesson of the music business is that the price of a digital book has to be sensibly cheap, given the experience of a web generation used to downloading and streaming to their heart’s content.

The e-book shouldn’t try to rip-off the consumer in the same way as the CD did to the cassette-and-vinyl buyer of the past. We know that the immaterial nature of the object means that prices should fall – and so they will.
But the even more urgent lesson is that authors need to become as conscious of their power as digital “rights-holders” as musicians now are – and support digital platforms (similar to Tunecore and Bandcamp for musicians) which will enable them to trade their works directly with readers, rather than have a whole army of intermediaries and middle-men take their cut. Perhaps, I also tentatively suggested, authors should also find a more dynamic way to relate to their readers, using web-community tools to amplify the connections they make at readings, in-stores and festivals.

In a brilliant presentation (here’s an earlier version), the Swedish writer Ola Larsmo proposed the “x plus 1″ theory: “new media does exactly what the old did – plus one thing more … And if we apply the formula of x+1 to the book, we see that whatever wants to replace it must be able to do everything a book can, including standing around for a long while and remaining readable. Whatever wants to replace the book must, by necessity, look very much like – a book.”

And with that, a few of us skulked off to plan a “United Writers” (in the spirit of United Artists), to help connect the author’s voice to those “engineers and coders” – featured in Hari Kunzru’s opening speech – who will shape the “space of literature”. Watch this space, indeed.

Our final “Declaration of Istanbul” had a slightly rocky passage to completion – it was perhaps too faithful to the bloviating and theorising that you’d get from rooms full of national intellectuals. But once the objections had been raised and noted, the committee produced a reasonable statement that asserted a few crucial points.

Primarily, it opposed “the use of penal codes and laws to harass and intimidate writers, such as has happened in Turkey and elsewhere” (not as explicitly stated in the first draft). The importance of funding translation schemes came with a brand-new (and supremely ugly) chunk of jargon: “biblio-diversity”. The declaration was endorsed almost unanimously – with only one Muslim writer complaining testily that he didn’t regret in the slightest “making it difficult for Naipaul to come”.

Two themes were on my mind as the parliament wound down. One arose from my many conversations with writers from post-Communist states, all of whom exhibited a remarkable depth of cynicism and even despair about the public culture and political structures of their country. Bulgarians satirising their diplomats as venal idiots; Slovaks writing best-sellers on the human face of their mafia gangs; Latvians watching their language wither on the vine for lack of cultural investment; Hungarians terrified at the extreme right-wing elements in their polity…

Other than the perpetually optimistic Nordics, these writers were describing a Europe in a state of exhaustion and even nihilism – not a good mood for Europeans to be in. I found myself counting my blessings for the consistent temper of the Scottish national mood – no doubt benefitted by the relative development of our economic and public services, and the access to rich markets of our English-speaking cultural producers. By comparison with these countries, our minuet-like steps towards effective self-government, and the pettifogging squabbles about the relevant tactics in Holyrood, seem even more like the squandering of an easy and obvious opportunity.

And as for nationhood, I’m only beginning what feels like a long investigative journey into the nature of national identity in Turkey. Perry Anderson’s powerful LRB essays on the history and legacy of Kemalism have two main points. Firstly, Turkey cannot become the geopolitical fulcrum between Europe and the Arab world that it craves to be, without fully reckoning with its darker history: the genocide against the Armenians, its many other ethnic and regional pogroms and exclusions, and its current deafness to the self-governing demands of Kurds within its borders (and Cypriots beyond).

Do Scots, as Tom Devine constantly reminds us, have to face up to the human costs of our eager facilitation of British colonial horror? Or Australians their treatment of aboriginals? Of course we, and they, do: any healthy national identity does, particularly those that once operated as Anderson’s “party of order”. Going by the voices of the Turkish writers at this gathering, there is a similar reckoning coming for the sons of Kemal.

Anderson’s second, well-argued point is that Turkish secular nationalism was always much more coldly pragmatic about the use of religion to maintain social harmony (particularly via Sunni Islam) than its current advocates claim. Any morning read of Istanbul’s two excellent English-language papers, Daily News & Economic Review and Zaman, is like staring into a clouded pool of coded messages and religious-political strategies it could take years to understand fully.

And yet, and yet. We closed our visit with a tour round two thrillingly beautiful mosques, the Haghia Sophia and the Sultanahmet (or Blue Mosque) – the latter in particular a mind-blowing orgy of geometric form, pattern and colour, its impact on the caverns of your head and heart undeniable.

The Istanbul skyline on that final evening looked unreal: a teeming social fabric cast upon its seven hills, the mosques surmounting this tumult like 50’s sci-fi structures. Alongside my urbane companions, it felt like one of the few places on earth where some new discussions might occur – about how to reconcile progress and piety, modernity and tradition, the contingent and the eternal. I hope I’ll be back, and in the meantime I’ll certainly be listening and watching.

- For more pictures and vids on Pat Kane’s ideas visit his blog Thoughtland.

Ping logoThe word “apple” and music – a marriage made in heaven.

The Beatles’ record label, Chris Martin of Coldplay’s firstborn and the people who gave us the iPod, the iPad and iTunes.

Now they’ve unleashed its social net-working music-sharing part of site, the future of Apple is brighter than Orange. They can’t put a foot wrong.

iRight…

Ping, Steve Jobs’s attempt to muscle in on the social networking circus misfires on so many levels.

First impressions on a first date are vital. Googling Ping will lead you a manufacturer of golf putters, a David Lloyd-style chain of table tennis joints, a dim sum restaurant in London, another social network aggregator and finally you arrive at the iTunes Ping.

Once downloaded, the thing recommended to me that I “might like” The Dave Matthews Band and Taylor Swift. Talk about having the soup thrown in your face before you’ve ordered the main course.

After that insult’s been digested, interesting people to “follow” on Ping – similar to following others on Twitter but you’re just looking at what they purchased on iTunes and the occasional Facebook-style “Like” – are few and far between. Stadia dwellers Muse, Coldplay and U2 are on there, as are left-field pop stars Lady Gaga and Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears.

By “on there”, that means they post the way you and I send postcards – infrequently or never. Or they flog their records – I didn’t need to “follow” Mark Ronson on Ping to know he has a new record out. Alesha Dixon’s is clearly churned out by her record company/management. Lenny Kravitz’s “Recent Activity” is a blank page which may say more than the nothing he intended.

You occasionally strike gold and find someone whose taste may interest you – I found Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake, now living in Ontario, by accident – but most of the time you don’t know who’s who – whether the Phoenix in New York is the French indie band. for instance.

It does have some value. Who knew the guys from Soulwax liked Erol Alkan and Nick Lowe? Producer Rick Rubin made some interesting recommendations from The Doobie Brothers to Procul Harum and Mason Williams’ Classical Gas. Some reliably funny music writers like Andrew Harrrison, Peter Robinson and Eamonn Forde are on there. You never know – if artists with a proven record in owning loads of records from Mogwai to Quincy Jones to Michael Nyman and Dangermouse to Joanna Newsom to Craig Armstrong as well as other music writers, film directors and artists all wash up on there, it could yet be quite a fun playground.

The social networking etiquette rules are inevitably still being drawn up. Twitter is good to eavesdrop on celebrity conversations, and sometimes even initiate them. Spotify works for streaming music and sharing playlists. MySpace used to be where bands hawked their wares and, for some, perhaps remains that place. Facebook, well, that’s a whole other movie… And probably a privacy lawsuit waiting to happen.

Here’s the real problem with Ping. You know very well that the music you bought on iTunes – a song you heard in a club, on a movie, on the radio – is a fraction of your record collection. Some of the rest was bought on Amazon or isn’t something you physically own except as a streaming device on your computer.

Those crucial hours spent leafing through racks of CD or vinyl – I had a very enjoyable hour in a second-hand classical/jazz shop this lunchtime – are really what formed the soundtrack of many of our lives. Ping is almost the polar opposite of Record Store Day. The spontaneity of discovering a disregarded nugget, the hours of leafing through different tunes, the joy of getting out the house – iTunes can’t give you that.

The overhanging impression left by Ping is that it’s a device purely to flog songs on Apple’s music-flogging service. They want you to part with your cash before you’ve barely begun the conversation. And on a date, that’s a real no-no.

David Guetta. <em>Picture: Ellen Von Unwerth</em>

David Guetta. Picture: Ellen Von Unwerth

Is dance music as important as rock?

There used to be only one figure that counted in the music industry: record sales. Everything else was secondary. Tee-shirts, badges and other paraphernalia were given away. Tours lost money, but none of this mattered as long as the effect was to push the artiste up the charts. The only other area that was ever monitored was the number of times a track was played on the radio.

The internet turned everything on its head. Despite the desperate rearguard actions of the recording industry it’s unlikely music sales will ever be seriously profitable again. Instead the focus has moved to the previously promotional activities of merchandising and touring. This works particularly well for established stadium bands such as the Rolling Stones and U2 who, according to Billboard magazine, made over £75 million from their tour in 2009. This year they could have made even more had Bono not been injured.

So how else do you measure pop success in the digital age? It’s a question that analyst Kevin Watson is one of the first to try and answer. His report was prepared for the dance music business’s annual conference, the International Music Summit, held over three days in Ibiza, Spain.

“There’s not been much research on dance music,” he said. “So what we’ve tried to do is define the industry and how big it is by measuring the media impact.”

The reason for the focus is that many in the dance or electronic music business feel it is marginalised relative to rock and pop. Official industry figures suggest dance music in 2009 accounted for 9.4 million album sales in the UK or about 7.5 per cent of the total. That’s a larger proportion than any other major country. But those figures, Watson said, don’t tell the whole story.

Much electronic music isn’t included in official figures as it is downloaded from specialist sites such as Beatport. In fact the very means of its creation makes measurement difficult. Many of the tracks played in clubs are mixes, mashups and samples combining tunes from a number of artistes, often without the official permission of copyright holders. Generally these are created on home computers and most are never commercially released.

The combined scale of the UK dance music scene, however, is enormous. According to Watson there are around 100,00 DJs in Britain playing in around 1500 clubs with a combined capacity of 550,000. Specialist dance music festivals attract more than 200,000 people each year and that’s not including events such as Glastonbury which also feature big-name DJs.

Globally, the popularity of DJs such as David Guetta or Tiësto measured in terms of the number of Google searches puts them ahead of almost all other musicians with the exception of Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas. Each attracts tens of millions of searches a month, but Guetta beats them all in terms of fans and followers on Facebook and Twitter. And, according to Watson just one of Guetta’s tracks “When Love Takes Over” received over 50 million user plays last year. That is, rather than having a radio station or DJ choosing the tune, fans selected the specific track on YouTube, last.fm, MySpace and Spotify or opted to download it.

French DJ Guetta has very much been at the forefront of the resurgence of dance music. He provided the soundtrack to the Citroën skating robot commercials, but it’s his work with the Black Eyed Peas that’s made him globally successful. He co-created their biggest hit “I gotta feeling” and since then every American hip-hop and R&B artiste wants to work with him. But it remains to be seen whether his current success is a one-off or part of a trend which will increase the proportion of US record sales represented by dance music above its current one per cent.

- Nick Clayton has lived in Ibiza for the last six years.

Spotify logoIt was when writing about Journey t’other day, that the thought of making a compilation of that sort of on shaggy-haired soft-rock, largely from the ‘80s, occurred.

Years ago, this would have involved a tortuous process figuring out how not to crash the song at the end of side one. Or a few years ago, how many tracks you could squeeze on the CD before the 78 minutes was up. Or, more recently with iTunes, how many seconds you leave between tracks. Now, thanks to Spotify, you can be sent a playlist (like this Poodle rock one) and share it with friends, acquaintances and perfect strangers in ten minutes. Even the hassle of getting hold of the music has vanished.

Just when myspace was losing its shine, Spotify burst on the scene, offering a bridge between those who bought music online and those who got it for free. Spotify’s concept (listening to it for free with ads, unless you were willing to pay the £9.99-a-month for unlimited listening) seem to attract the record companies from the big guns to indies like Domino looking to promote a suck-it-and-see policy for new music.

Spotify’s big challenges are ahead of it. Unlike Robbie Williams, many think it has a decent chance of breaking America. Spotify, founded by Swede Daniel Ek, fancies giving Apple a bloody lip after Spotify applications moved recently to iPhone and Android phones. Ek, rather sickeningly, only turns 27 on February 21.

On Wednesday this week, something happened. Spotify thought it was going steady with the big record companies. One of their number, Warner Music Group chaiman Edgar Bronfman Jr told them, well, that He’s Just Not That Into You. Some, including the BBC, suggested one of the three main big cats was about to pull the plug. Sony BMG and Universal are the others – the once all-conquering EMI are “having a moment“. By Thursday, Spotify was adopting the “Hey, we’re cool” air of the ditched boyfriend, quickly dismissing this story as that old chestnut of “media reporting out of context”.

Here’s the exact comment: “Free streaming services are clearly not net positive for the industry and as far as Warner Music is concerned will not be licensed.

“The ‘get all your music you want for free, and then maybe with a few bells and whistles we can move you to a premium price’ strategy is not the kind of approach to business that we will be supporting in the future.”

Hardly flowers in time for Valentine’s Day.

If Spotify wants to enjoy its own US invasion the following questions will require an answer:-

Can it exist without the music giant which owns the catalogue of R.E.M, Michael Buble, Aretha Franklin, Jay-Z and umpteen other artists?

Of its 7m users in Europe, can it persuade more – much more – than the current estimate of 250,000 who pay £9.99 a month to cough up for its ad-free premium service?

If Warner Music are having itchy feet, can it keep the other two happy? And then “break” America?

If the answer isn’t yes to all these questions, Spotify could have had its moment in the sun.

In mitigation, there are reasons for the company to be optimistic.

Many industry experts have contended that the iPad indicates Steve Jobs is falling out of love with sellling music. The record companies can’t keep going to war with their customers by prosecuting file-sharers … can they?

Battle-lines are currently being drawn, with Spotify in the green corner for music streaming, Apple in the sleek silver corner for music-buying with the illegal file-sharers cast in the role of touts. The record companies, who own all this music, are taking all sorts of positions. Some think streaming is their best chance at profit. Others have long been unhappy with Apple’s pricing strategy, which has been gradually changing. Music fans, used to free music, won’t be thrilled at rising prices – this again could play into Spotify’s hands.

Edgar Bronfman Jr’s remarks suggest Spotify has some way to go before its fan club numbers the same as the Bay City Rollers in the early ’70s.

The big decisions lie with the companies who own and produce most of the music industry. What will they do? Well, right now, to quote the great screenwriter William Goldman‘s comment about Hollywood – nobody knows anything.

It wasn’t the most auspicious entry in UK chart history.

Californian rockers Journey,a ragbag of jazzers and Carlos Santana’s old band, limped into our charts at 62 with a track from their sixth album in February 1982. Exactly 28 years to the month later, the same song, Don’t Stop Believin’ has become a phenomenon.

It is the first so-called “catalogue track” (other definition – oldie) to sell two million copies digitally. For the best part of a month, the UK Top 10 chart has included versions from the school-choir freaks’n’geeks of E4’s Glee and the original Journey version.

There are many reasons for its success, but here’s the main one – it’s a good tune with a sensational vocal from Steve Perry. On a pre-Christmas visit to a sports bar in New York, I saw customers reducing to whooping, hollering and high-fiving before the second chorus had kicked in. And, yes, before 9pm.

The appeal of the song itself, with its euphoric chorus, uplifting but generic Yes-We-Can lyrics and its power chords, is easy to explain.

The same people who like ‘80s fist-pumpers like Van Halen’s Jump or John Cafferty’s Hearts On Fire probably like D.S.B.

Fans don’t have to be headband-wearing children of the ‘80s – they might just have played Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

The recent spread of the song, which makes the advancement of H1N1 look lethargic, is more difficult to pinpoint.

Journey were always big in the States, the band have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Perry sang on We Are the World. It’s only in the last ten years that the song has become such a standard.

That trusty barometer of jock appeal, the sport stadium, saw a renaissance of the song with the Chicago White Sox and LA Dodgers baseball teams as well as the Waterford Hurling team hammering it at games from the mid-’00s.

Possibly, its breakthrough moment came in the final moments of The Sopranos’ final series where Tony opted for Journey over Heart and Tony Bennett at the diner jukebox.

What was curious was that Sopranos creator David Chase had peppered the sixth series of the show with classic heritage rock from Cream, the Kinks, the Stones to Springsteen, Van Morrison and the post-punk of Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe but he chose what many pop critics would regard as a slab of soft-rock Gorgonzola for the show’s finale.

By 2007, the song had well and truly left the runway. Hillary Clinton opted for extra Ba-Da Bing by using it on her campaign video. Manchester’s Badly Drawn Boy even covered it on his US tour.

Paydirt really arrived when the song pitched up on Glee, with an interpretation that owed a fair amount to Petra Haden’s Flying Pickets-style rendering.

Enter Simon Cowell, the high priest of processed pop, who doesn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind’s blowing. With his antennae tuned to passing bandwagons which he attempts to upgrade to juggernauts, he soon appropriated the song for American Idol on Fox (the Glee network).

Last year it helped Joe McElderry win The X Factor.

Cowell even tried to release McElderry’s version as the winner’s single but wanted to alter the original – presumably the line “Just a city boy raised in South Detroit” was going to be changed to “raised in South Shields” for Joe.

It’s debatable whether the reference to ‘a smell of wine and cheap perfume’ was off-message for an X Factor victor. Whatever changes Cowell wanted, Journey didn’t share those wishes and had veto over a “reinterpretation” (interesting point: bands can’t object to a straight cover). The Geordie Bambi ended up singing Miley Cyrus instead.

That was said by many, including Rage Against the Machine Facebook campaigners Jon and Tracey Morter, to be the reason why the cuddly British tradition of Christmas No 1 was filled in 2009 by a ditty about US cops being in hock with the KKK.

The song refused to go away in the UK by now. Journey started January 2010 on the Radio 1 & 2 playlist proving that for the iTunes generation, there is no such thing as a “catalogue track”.

The concept of “old” music, or even a description like “catalogue track” feels about as 2010 as giving a flexidisc on the cover of a magazine. On streaming services like Spotify, “catalogue tracks” rub shoulders with the latest releases – for music buyers now, it’s all “new stuff”.

This is already having repercussions for soundtrack albums. Greatest Hits collections and attempts at “straight” cover versions when the customer is always right-clicking their own playlists.

On the other hand, the lazy boyband or reality show contestant who wants to murder a classic, beware: the buyer is only one click away from the original. Olly Murs’ Superstition … ain’t the way.