As a teenager learning the sax, my dreams were probably more in the direction of emulating the thrilling rock’n’roll of Clarence Clemons or the sweetly soulful stylings of Junior Walker, despite the best efforts of Leon Bonewell – my tutor – to get me into Charlie Parker. Nevertheless, I’ve listened to a lot of jazz over the years albeit largely at the more tuneful, melodic end rather than at the end of its more modern forms dominated by experimental squawking.
Jazz has rarely been entirely out of popularity but has in the past decade come back into public consciousness via a few – unsuccessful – Mercury Prize nominations (Kit Downes trio, Gwilym Simcock) and, more recently, the birth of the south-east London jazz scene. Jazz 625 – the BBC programme in the mid-60s credited with popularising a lot of jazz names – was this weekend brought back to life for one night only and it featured many of the current names in jazz, among them Sons of Kemet (again, Mercury Prize nominees) and Poppy Ajudha.
Poppy Ajudha has been around for just a couple of years (a major feature in May 2019, for instance, in the Evening Standard) and, following the inclusion on Barack Obama’s 2018 end-of-year playlist of ‘Disco Yes’, a track on which she featured, her mid-20s star has not so much been rising as shooting. She’s bright, confident and, firmly seized of the fact that life is for living, has realised the importance of having something to say for herself. Here she is on ‘Black Joy. Black Peace. Black Justice’, written during lockdown in the wake of this summer’s Black Lives Matter events in the States: a searing, soaring lament of hair-raising beauty allied to simple guitar chords and, here, gospel-style backing vocals.
On Jazz 625, you can watch her segment, performing the same track and accompanying herself on guitar, at about 1:21. Do try and catch it if you can.
Poppy wasn’t interviewed for the programme, but the programme hosts, drummer Moses Boyd, Tomorrow’s Warriors graduate, and Jamz Supernova, broadcaster, spoke around it of the effects of lockdown in giving artists the space to be able to reflect on the events going on around them in their songwriting and the creative time to make music on their own terms. I suspect that’s more true of some genres than others, and also of some artists than others – for those whose star is short, a lost year of performing can be incredibly damaging, not least in that performance (and merchandising) is the model of how to make money in a music-streaming world, and there is a real danger of being eclipsed by the stars that emerge once this is over. On top of that, the lack of effective furlough for musicians – in sharp contrast to the 1970s and 1980s, when there was some leeway for otherwise-unemployed creative artists – is likely to lead to some taking the decision to give up altogether.
The second track this week is First Aid Kit‘s straightforward cover of Willie Nelson’s ‘On the Road Again’, a track whose opening lyrics emphasise for these times the pain of performing artists being unable to do the job they love:
The track was recorded back in 2013, it seems as part of the studio sessions for what became Stay Gold, the duo’s third album. It features the sisters singing in their own highly recognisable harmonic style and the video is a sweet, fun compilation of moments ‘on the road’ caught on the camera(phone)s of the sisters, as well as their bandmates and roadcrew. It’s also part of an upcoming album, which is great news.
The track was released back in August, and has been done specifically to support Crew Nation, set up by the not-without-controversy Live Nation ticketing operation to support backstage workers involved in putting on live music but currently unable to work because of the pandemic. The Söderberg sisters are donating their proceeds from the track to Crew Nation.
YouTube is, as many readers will know, legendarily at the bottom of the league table when it comes to paying royalties to artists (the reason why the videos embedded in this series of posts come also with links to artists’ own bandcamp pages). Very few ‘YouTubers’ actually make any money off of the platform. What is actually paid by music streaming services is complicated by a number of factors, as summarised helpfully in a blog post earlier this year by Ditto Music, but YouTube pays, according to the post, something like $0.00069 per play (see figure below). The defence is that YouTube Music, the company’s specific music arm, pays a royalty akin to Spotify – which is also lower than the median, the astute reader of graphics will note – and also, possibly, that the views generated by the platform are sizable enough to generate a reasonable return.
First Aid Kit – while clearly not on the Ed Sheeran or Luis Fonsi scale of views, or even that of a certain mid-80s pop sensation – are a well-enough known act. As I write, ‘On The Road Again’ has had just shy of 100,000 plays. At the rate quoted above, this means that the royalties generated from YouTube amount to $68.54 (prior, of course, to all the usual parties taking their cut). Yes, you read that right. It’s shameful. YouTube is a $15bn-a-year business, Google has recently reported (for the first time).
So, do watch the video on behalf of the roadies and backstage crew supported by Crew Nation (and repeatedly, including those pesky ads) – but don’t forget also to buy the track. Direct from the artists, wherever possible; or, at least, from an independent retailer near you. Life doesn’t have to be only for rent.
[EDIT 24 NOVEMBER: Interestingly, the issues of the economic impact of music streaming on musicians was the subject today of oral evidence to the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s specific inquiry – today being the last day for oral evidence although written evidence can continue to be submitted for another week. This blog is expressly on the side of the angels, not the platforms.]