This guest column comes from Mark Christopher Lee from British band The Pocket Gods, creator of the 100×30 project.
“It’s just over a year ago since I read a newspaper article that has changed my musical life somewhat.
It was by US music professor Mike Errico who was questioning why songwriters in the age of streaming were still writing in a three-and-a-half minute format. This format/length had evolved mainly from the length of time you could fit on a side of seven-inch vinyl.
Errico asked why songwriters were not adapting their craft to the digital media of today, and suggested that as streaming services paid out a royalty after 30 seconds and then no more whatever the length of the track, then why write longer songs?
This struck a chord (probably D Minor) in me and it set my mind racing. I was down in Soho on my way to the Waffle Club which is a media and music networking club. Once there I told my manager, Steve Blacknell who ran the Club, that The Pocket Gods’ next album would be all 30-second songs and there would be 100 of them.
I showed him the article and said “there is something in this and we need to make a musical statement about the lack of royalties from streaming”.
I knew that others such as Vulfpeck had gone before but had eventually been taken off Spotify, and there was a lot of mostly-political posturing by major-label artists like Taylor Swift and Adele about not putting their music on Spotify.
I thought that this would go one step further as I would actually be putting music onto Spotify and also making a legitimate and legal point about royalties. I’d also come to the conclusion that the songs on the album would all be about the music industry, which I’d been working in for most of my life in various guises.
I had a lot to get off my chest…
100 songs sounded impressive and would look good as a logo/cover: 100×30. Little did I realise that this would lead to other doors opening. Also, by putting 100 songs on an album I thought I would maximise what little royalties were available if people streamed the whole album over and over. Similar to Eternify, if you remember that?
From Waffle Club I returned home on the train to St Albans amongst all the pinstripe-suited and boozed-up commutatons, and started sketching out the song titles. It was easy: I just picked a target (er sorry, subject) such as Youtube, Deezer, NME, Soundcloud or EMI and rattled off ranty lyrics a-la Sleaford Mods to record later.
So, into the garage I went with a half-knackered Macbook (which later inspired one of the songs – MacBook Ho), a cheap bottle of red and a head full of ideas.
The first 50 were easy enough. I tried to mix up the styles as I realised that I would have to keep listeners’ attention if I was going to get them to stream the whole album.
Eventually, as much as I knew and loved the music biz, I started running out of ideas and even resorted to mic-ing up the toy jukeboxes that my kids had won at the seaside amusements.
It was time to call in a few friends and fans of the Pocket Gods: Owen Paul, Ray Dorset, long time Pocket God Howard Hughes, Tom Green (Another Fine Day and collaborator with The Orb) and fellow Nub label mates The Low Countries, The Boy From Space and many more.
My fave song from the album is Owen Paul’s Spotify: he put so much guts and emotion into 30 secs, you can feel the anger he has towards them.
With the album finally finished, what next? Uploading 100 songs to distributor The Orchard was time-consuming and open to errors just by the sheer volume of it. Aghhh, metadata metadata, why do I flippin’ hate ya?!
Tracks were triple-checked by tons of people, but we still got a few titles wrong in the rush to get it out by Christmas. The logistics of the 100-song album are, to be honest, a bit of a mare – but not insurmountable!
To be honest, I knew this might create a bit of a fuss as it was different and had never been done before. Obviously: who would be mad enough?! But wow, there was a media snowstorm.
The 100×30 album was featured on ITV, London Live, the Independent, the Wall Street Journal, music magazines and blogs, and it was one of Steve Lamacq from BBC 6Music’s recommended albums. He played a lot of the tracks on his show.
The highlight was the live launch at Alleycat, with my own band backing Owen Paul for his Spotify song, and also playing with Ray Dorset of Mungo Jerry in an epic 10-minute jazz-rock version of In The Summertime.
I had to play piano as Ray had grabbed my guitar. I sounded like Les Dawson meets Oscar Peterson… Thanks to David Stark from Songlink for cajoling me into to asking Ray onto Stage!
After the winter it all died down a bit but I wanted to keep the 100X30 brand going. I also had an ally in Jon Morter (the Rage Against The Machine guy as people call him) who loved the idea and concept and wanted to see how far we could go.
I decided that seeing as 2016 was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, that the next album would be all about the great bard.
The writing and recording this time around was a lot easier as I had developed techniques and confidence in what needed to be done. I’d also enlisted an old mate and top producer/engineer Paul Tipler (Idlewild, Placebo, Stereolab) to mix the tracks for me.
However, the release had to be delayed due to me being unwell and it wasn’t released until June 2016. For this release we got involved with another label, Thoroughbred, and Proper Music as a distributor.
CDs were also manufactured, and that’s a whole other article of its own – but just to say that if anyone, like me, didn’t know already, you can’t get more than 99 tracks on any CD anywhere in the world, no matter what length or data amount used. It’s physically impossible to burn 100 tracks or more on a CD! So the only way round it was to merge tracks 99 and 100 into one track.
Promotion for the new album was underway and it was great that the CD was for sale in record shops all across the country, but I started to have a few doubts. Was I taking this too far? Maybe it was just a novelty, as a local radio station had just told us.
But then the 100X30 concept suddenly gained a new lease of life when the Guinness World Records people contacted us to say that we were being featured in their new book for 2017 as we held the record for the most tracks on a digital album!
This was cool as I didn’t realise that we had broken a record: I just chose 100 as it sounded impressive and looked good on the logo!
And there we are page 180 just next to Justin Bieber’s ear and I think If we weren’t so goddamn pretty we would even have our own pic! We were presented with our official framed certificate live on TV which was a weird but great experience – there wasn’t even time for Noel and myself to have a cheeky G&T before we went on (as we had done in the past – shush don’t tell ITV!)
One of the only disappointments of the year was that the album didn’t make the Mercury Prize shortlist, although it made the semi finals of the A2IM Libera Awards in the US.
Are there any more-original albums on the list? It is hard being a small label trying to take on the larger labels and vested interests. We are bypassing the whole PR/plugging machine and doing it ourselves, rather than sending Mojo etc our album three months in advance via a PR/plugger who charges an extortionate rate.
(Is this still relevant in the modern age? Hence the song Mojo Mojo Why Don’t You Review This Album Instead Of Another REM Blojo.)
Even the BBC are shying away from CDs now and are requesting music to be sent digitally. About time too, and fair play to [6Music DJ] Tom Robinson for being the first to do this a few years back.
Without sounding too pretentious I hope to carry on turning the 30-second song into a new artform. We are helping build an alliance of the 30-second song across Europe with the #31s movement in Germany, as well as Vulfpeck in the US.
The 100 x 30 second-song album makes artistic sense as a whole and is almost prog-like. Some people have said it is just a gimmick, but is it merely marketing music to today’s online, low-attention-span consumers?
Next up is the 100Xmas30 album complete with the 12 Days of Christmas single: 12 30-second songs, all interlinked.
I also have an even madder idea which for now remains secret but suffice to say it’s an idea as big as Bono’s ego.
Some other people have accused me of being a luddite but they fail to realise that I was one of the first digital-only labels back in 2005 before the whole streaming and download thing kicked off thanks to IODA.
Yes, I know that streaming and virtual streaming are the future: I’m not trying to hark back to a false halyconic ‘spliffs and vinyl rock’n’roll’ heyday. I’m just trying to have a debate about how we all value and pay for music after years and years of getting it free thanks to piracy etc.
Music and songs have value thanks to the writers and the performers and they must be paid a fair amount – simple.
Do we want a future of tribute bands, rose-spectacled Scrumpy-tainted nostalgia and X Factor karaoke finely auto-tuned for our moribund lives?
I guess society gets the music and culture it deserves, but I believe in a brighter future. We have talent, technology and a worldwide audience who love British music in all its infinite varieties so lets keep on rocking, but make sure artists and songwriters are paid a fair amount for their talents – without which there would be no music and no industry.”