Towards the end of 2020 the penny is starting to drop about the exploitative nature of the streaming services relationship with artists. Alec Bowman’s brilliant thought piece here at AUK recently highlights the position more eloquently than I can, but as someone whose business life is partly spent trying to support artists in getting their message out I can endorse everything he says.
But this is about the music, and Bowman’s ‘I Used to Be Sad & Then I Forgot’ album is one highpoint among many this year. The “lockdown album” became a thing and produced some unexpected entries. Jack Henderson’s ‘Where’s the Revolution’ was a coin toss away from being my album of the year. Kate Rusby says of her ‘Hand me Down’. “It was always the plan to make this album this year, lock-down just made it more intimate.” The versions of ‘Three Little Birds’ and ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ are as good as anything this year. This was the year of Dylan. ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’ tipped me over into fandom, with Emma Swift’s excellent ‘Blonde on the Tracks’ contributing as well. But if ‘Western Stars’ and ‘Letter to You’ haven’t convinced me of the merits of Springsteen then I guess nothing will.
Albums from early in the year are getting overlooked a bit in the annual reviews. Cua’s ‘In Flight Off the Islands’ earned a 9 out of 10 from me in the first week of January and is one of the finest folk albums of recent years. Songdog’s ‘A Happy Ending’, and Corb Lund’s ‘Agricultural Tragic’ are others that deserve their moment in the spotlight. Having caused some controversy with it, I’m still happy with my review of Waxahatchee’s ‘Saint Cloud’. Reissues were another area that thrived this year with the standout being the Richard & Linda Thompson box set ‘Hard Luck Stories 1972-1982‘.
As one of the artists doing regular live streams with her Singy Songy sessions, Kate Rusby joined artists from all over the world in performing as best they could in 2020. With places like PayPal offering virtual tip jars to raise a little money. Even here though the dead hand of the streaming services got in the way. Spotify’s tip jar felt more like a gut punch. If you paid people properly, they wouldn’t need to ask for donations. There are a lot of people working hard on behalf of the artists, seeing the work of the small P.R. companies who send AUK albums to review is encouraging, and keeps musicians away from the likes of Submithub and StreamingFamous.
When thinking about your votes for the AUK Readers Poll a possible for hero of the year would be Bandcamp. Their ten percent take from artist sales is not unreasonable, but returning this to the artists on the first Friday of each month this year has enabled musicians to plan releases and get the marketing in place to achieve the maximum financial benefit. With CD Baby departing from the direct distribution market in February, the number of places where something approaching a living can be made from music are limited, pretty much to Bandcamp. The fact that in adversity so much brilliant music has been released this year is cause to feel positive about 2021 and beyond.