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Paul McCartney, Sting, Elton John and Avril Lavigne – questions about pricing November 14, 2013

Posted by Alan Yu in Music, Pop and Rock.
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As a student of marketing, I am fascinated by how product pricing influences consumer behaviour, and my love of music led me to a search on iTunes over the weekend which prompted me to make a few interesting observations.

I was considering downloading five albums:

  • New and Kisses On the Bottom by Paul McCartney
  • The Last Ship by Sting
  • The Diving Board by Elton John
  • Avril Lavigne by Avril Lavigne

Paul McCartney, Sting and Elton John have been around for donkey’s years, and I’m excited that they have all released new material recently.  Avril Lavigne shot to fame with her début album Let Go when she was only 17 in 2002, having appeared on stage with Shania Twain at only 15.  Fresh from her marriage to Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger in July, she has also released a new studio album.  Since I have all her four previous albums, I’m keen to complete the collection.

It’s amazing that even after all these years, Paul McCartney is still able to churn out material that sounds relatively fresh, and his New album has received decent reviewsKisses On the Bottom is a collection of old songs from the 30s and 40s that McCartney apparently grew up with, but he surprises us with a new song he wrote in the style of the oldies called “My Valentine”, in which Eric Clapton is said to have a hand.

Sting was the lead singer for The Police for many years, until he ventured on the solo path in 1981.  His musical detours in recent years include an experiment with the music of English composer John Dowland, who predated baroque composers Henry Purcell and Vivaldi.  In 2009, he released a studio album If On A Winter’s Night featuring 14th century carols and tunes by Bach and SchubertThe Last Ship plumbs the depths of pain felt by those caught up in the demise of the local shipping industry.  Yet my favourite is a real softie unrelated to the album’s theme called “Practical Arrangement”.

Avril Lavigne, on the other hand, has gone back to her rock ‘n’ roll roots with an attitude. I love the way she says “…What if you and I/Just put up a middle finger to the sky/Let them know we’re still rock ‘n roll…” in “Rock And Roll” from her latest album.

As I surveyed the albums by iTunes, I discovered that New, The Last Ship and The Diving Board are available in both deluxe and ordinary editions.  Typically, the deluxe edition has a few bonus tracks and costs more.  Yet, all deluxe editions are not created equal – some are at a higher premium to the ordinary edition than others.  If you buy the entire album, deluxe New is 16.7% more expensive, but you do get 16.7% more tracks; similarly, deluxe The Diving Board is 25% more expensive for 26.7% more tracks.  The Last Ship is a real bargain, as it gives you close to 42% more tracks, but costs only 25% more, which means that per track the discount is close to 12%.

All five albums offer two download options for both editions: by album or by selective track, with the latter being more expensive per track than the former.  If you download the entire deluxe New album, you pay 22.5% less per track, but if you do the same for The Diving Board, the discount is almost 40%.  In the ordinary edition, the discount in the album rather than by track download is steepest for Kisses On the Bottom – a whopping 61.3%; New and The Last Ship offer the smallest discount of 22.5%.  Individual track downloads cost US$1.29 each,  standard across all albums and editions.

Assuming you download the entire album, New is most expensive among the deluxe editions,, at US$1 per track, whereas The Last Ship is the cheapest, at US$0.79 only, as the latter has 19 tracks compared with the former’s 14, or almost 36% more.  Does this mean Paul McCartney is able to command a higher price than Sting?  Not really, as in the ordinary edition, Kisses On the Bottom is half of the price of New per track, but Sting is the next cheapest, at US$0.80.

If you look at the total amount of cash you have to fork out to download the albums, Kisses On The Bottom will set you back only US$7.99, but New, The Last Ship and The Diving Board cost a standard $11.99; Avril Lavigne is in between at US$10.99.

If you’re interested in the detailed comparisons, the following table gives you a snapshot:

Image

The above comparison touches on many questions we often come across in pricing a product:

How much should we charge for a product – what is the cash outlay we believe a consumer is prepared to pay for it?  Why does Paul McCartney charge a lot more for New than for Kisses On the Bottom?  Why are Paul McCartney’s New, Sting’s The Last Ship and Elton John’s The Diving Board more expensive than Avril Lavigne’s eponymous work?

  • How many variants should we offer, and what sort of discount or premium should we charge for one versus another? Why does Avril Lavigne not offer a deluxe edition of her album, nor does Paul McCartney his Kisses On the Bottom?
  • Does our brand deserve a premium against another brand, or can do we need to sell ours at a discount?  Why is Avril Lavigne’s album 8% cheaper than any of the others, but contains more tracks than some and less than others?
  • If we offer different sizes of a product how much more should we charge for the larger volume version?  Can the incremental cost justify the incremental value?  Should we offer a discount for the larger volume, and per unit of measure how big should the discount be?  Why does Sting offer a bigger discount per track for the album download than Elton John?  And why does Paul McCartney charge the same per track for both the deluxe and ordinary editions of New, irrespective of whether you download only a few tracks of the entire album?

In the end I downloaded the entire Kisses On the Bottom, The Last Ship and Avril Lavigne albums.  It didn’t make sense to download a few tracks at a substantial premium, as I have a predilection for owning full albums anyway.  I previewed New and The Diving Board and withheld purchase – I wanted to think more about whether I should pay 50% more for New than for Kisses On the Bottom.  All my downloads were of the ordinary editions, as I didn’t believe the bonus tracks in the deluxe editions justified the additional spend.  In other words, I didn’t believe the incremental value I would derive from the additional tracks was commensurate with the incremental outlay.  I didn’t buy all five albums as the three I did buy cost US$31, about the amount I was comfortable spending that day.

I have now finished listening to all the albums I bought, and am very happy with my purchases.  It’ll be interesting to see whether, in time, I decide to buy New and The Diving Board as well.

The links below will take you to the iTune pages for the various albums mentioned in this post:

Paul McCartney New

Paul McCartney Kisses on The Bottom

Sting The Last Ship

Elton John The Diving Board

Avril Lavigne Avril Lavigne

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Seniors in the entertainment industry are going strong October 17, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Music, Pop and Rock.
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No sooner had I finished uploading my blog post about a crop of young female pop talent came the news that veteran singer Tony Bennett had broken a record: at the end of September he became the oldest singer to have a number one hit on the Billboard top albums chart.  Hermione Hoby of the Guardian in the UK says the album sounds like “a fantasy birthday party in full swing”; and Mikael Wood in the LA Times says “it’s a beautiful bummer to hear Winehouse do her best Billie Holiday…”

In fact, as far as chart success goes, 2011 seems to be the year of the seniors.  Earlier in the month, Doris Day had just become the oldest artist to have reached the UK top 10 with new material.  Unlike Bennett, whose album consists of material recorded recently, Day didn’t go into the studio to record new material.  Her CD My Heart consists of tracks recorded between 1951 and 1994.  Even then, at 87, she is two years older than Bennett, for the record.  Reviewing the album for the Daily Telegraph, Neil McCormick says: “If someone stepped up on X Factor singing like this, they’d be unbeatable.”

Bennett and Day are not the only senior artists in recent years to taste chart success.  In September 2009, the BBC reported that Dame Vera Lynn, a favourite entertainer for the British forces during World War II, became the “oldest living artist” to top the UK album charts.  She was 92 at the time, and the album in question was We’ll Meet Again – The Very Best of Vera Lynn.  Again, this was not new material, but remarkable as it had knocked Arctic Monkeys off the top.

Other artists, of course, have topped the charts at an advanced age.  Actor Clive Dunn, famous for his role in the sitcom Dad’s Army, was 51 when he had a surprise hit called Grandad , which topped the UK chart in 1971.

Frank Sinatra was almost 54 when his hit My Way spent 75 weeks from April 1969 to September 1971 among the top 40 in the UK, but it never went to number one.  Perry Como’s It’s Impossible in February 1971 became his first song to reach the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100 in more than 12 years, peaking at number ten.  He was 59.  Later in the decade, in 1973, when he was 61, his song And I Love You So reached number 3 on the UK singles chart.

In an age of rapid technological advances favouring the young, it’s good to see that seniors in some industries are still showing the way, with help, no doubt, from supporters among the growing legion of baby boomers.  One of the pioneers of rock and roll, Chuck Berry, turns 85 on October 18th.  I have it on good authority that he usually performs one Wednesday each month at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and bar located in the Delmar Loop neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri.

In the entertainment business, the seniors are going strong.

A crop of female talent – from Adele to Winehouse August 28, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Music, Pop and Rock.
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The top 5 albums on the BBC Radio 1 chart in the week of August 14 were all by female artists.  The top 4 positions were shared by two UKsingers, Adele and Amy Winehouse.  This odd phenomenon started at the beginning of August, and prompted The Guardian to declare that “Men can’t do pop any more”.

For the last decade, I have been following the careers of a crop of female artists with a unique sound that sets them apart.  They are mostly from theUK, several were barely 20 when they gained prominence, and many have come into the mainstream in the last five years.

Adele

Alphabetically the first on the list, and currently the most successful, is Adele.  Earlier this year Billboard, theUS music magazine, declared her “the first living artist since the Beatles in 1964 to have two titles simultaneously in the top five of both theUK singles and album charts”.  Not bad for a girl just past 20.

She has had two studio albums so far, 19 and 21, the latter of which was at top of both the UK and US charts in the early part of August.

Born Adele Laurie Blue Atkins on 5th May, 1988, in Tottenham, England to a teenage mother, Adele moved to West Norwood, South London when she was 11.  West Norwood was the inspiration for her first song Hometown Glory.

After graduating from The BRIT School for Performing Arts & Technology in Croydon, she was discovered by Jonathan Dickins at September Management, who became her official representative.  Releasing Hometown Glory in October 2007, she received the BRIT Awards Critics’ Choice and was named the number-one predicted breakthrough act of 2008 in an annual BBC poll of music critics, Sound of 2008.

At the 2011 BRIT Awards, Adele sang the single Someone Like You, which went to number one in theUK, while the album from which it came was also top of the chart.

Lily Allen

Lily Rose Beatrice Allen, daughter of actor and musician Keith Allen and film producer Alison Owen, was born in 1985.  She developed an interest in glam and alternative rock at a young age, and left school to spend time developing a musical career.

After achieving some success with recordings she offered on MySpace, she signed a contract with Regal Recordings and completed her first studio album in 2006, Alright, Still, which produced the first single Smile and won her nominations at the Brit, Grammy and MTV Music Video awards.  A strong Cockney accent and crude language are hallmarks of her early work.

Lily had a troubled childhood, having been expelled from several schools for drinking and smoking, but her musical talent was unmistakable.  Her musical career was likewise troubled, with her acidic remarks about other pop musicians attracting controversy.

The gestation of her second studio album, It’s Not Me, It’s You, was long and beset by personal problems and changes in the structure of the parent of her record label.  Nevertheless, it debuted at number one in the UK, Canada and Australia, and number five in the US.  It also produced a couple of singles, The Fear and Not Fair, which reached the top ten 10 in theUK.

In June 2011, Allen married Sam Cooper, owner of a building company, and is said to be working on a musical version of Bridget Jones’s Diary, scheduled to open inLondon’sWest End in 2012.

Dido

In sharp contrast to Adele, Dido, born Dido Florian Cloud de Bounevialle O’Malley Armstrong, was already 28 when she came into prominence with her debut Album No Angel.  Unlike Adele, who has a gutsy, in-your-face voice, Dido sings almost in whispers.  Also unlike Adele, she comes from a well-educated, and probably well-to-do, family, her father being a publisher and her mother a poet.  Perhaps this explains why she was christened Dido, after the Queen of Carthage in Virgil’s Aeneid.  Her brother, Rowland Constantine O’Malley Armstrong, also known as Rollo, is a record producer and a member of the dance band Faithless.

Dido’s breakthrough came when her first single, Here With Me was used in the television series Roswell and Thank You in the movie Sliding Doors, featuring Gwyneth Paltrow.  Both are from the No Angel album.  Thank You was given a further boost when Eminem featured its first verse in his single Stan, the video for which also contains a cameo appearance by Dido herself, although this segment is censored in most versions.

On the back of her follow-up studio album Life for Rent, which produced two further hits, White Flag and Life for Rent, she went on a sold-out world tour in 2004.  A third studio album, Safe Trip Home, took several years to appear, and although containing some strong singles material, such as The Day Before The Day and Grafton Street, was not as popular as Life For Rent.

Duffy

Duffy, born Aimée Ann Duffy in Nefyn, Gwynedd, Wales, became the first Welsh female singer to have a number one single on the UK charts since Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse Of The Heart in 1984 when she released Mercy from her debut album Rockferry, which won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Album.

Her teen years were marked by some dramatic events, one of which was being put into a police safe house at age 13, when her stepfather’s ex-wife apparently contracted an assassin to kill her stepfather.  Development of her musical talent was not always smooth sailing either.  The Mail on Sunday reported that she was “…asked to leave her school choir because her voice was ‘too big’…”.

Duffy did not have a large record collection in her youth.  Her exposure to music was her father’s videotapes of the 1960s TV show Ready Steady Go!  After finishing school in Pembrokeshire, she returned to her birthplace in 2003 and started singing in various local bands, eventually appearing in the Welsh talent show, Wawffactor.  In 2004, when she was 20, Duffy recorded an EP with three Welsh songs which achieved some fame in Wales, while holding down two part-time jobs.

By 2007, Duffy had achieved enough fame to win a contract with A&M Records in the UK, as she was preparing material for her debut album named after Rock Ferry, where her grandmother lives.  In January 2008, Duffy was runner-up to Adele in the Sound of 2008 poll among industry experts by BBC News.  In March, she released Rockferry, which scooped up a number of awards, including three Brit awards and the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album in 2009.

Several songs in Rockferry won critical acclaim.  Mercy, which featured in the final episode of the American TV show Grey’s Anatomy and the soundtrack for Sex and the City: The Movie, was Song of the Year in the 2008 MOJO Awards, and Ed White was named Songwriter of the Year for his contribution to Warwick Avenue.

Her second studio album, Endlessly, unfortunately did not repeat the success of Rockferry, and Duffy announced early in 2011 that she was taking a break before working on her third studio album.

Ellie Goulding

Like Adele and Duffy, Ellie Goulding was named in the BBC News poll Sound of 2010, predicted to be an emerging act, and shared the honour with Adele as the only other artist who also went on to win the Critics’ Choice Award in the BRIT Awards.  Her debut album Lights reached number one in the UK upon release in 2010 and produced several singles – Starry Eyed, Guns and Horses and The Writer.  It was later re-released as Bright Lights, with some extra tracks, including a cover of Your Song by Elton John.

Born Elena Jane Goulding in 1985 in Hereford, Herefordshire, she started playing the clarinet at age nine and subsequently also learned to play the guitar, winning a singing competition in college.  The pinnacle of her career to date is being the only live performer at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.  She is said to be working on her second studio album.

Norah Jones

Born in March 1979 in Brooklyn, New York, to world-renowned sitar player Ravi Shankar and concert producer Sue Jones, Geethali Norah Jones Shankar spent her childhood with her mother in Grapevine, Texas after her parents separated.  She sang in the school choir and played the alto saxophone in the school band, having developed an interest in the music of Bill Evans and Billie Holiday, and eventually won the DownBeat Student Award for Best Jazz Vocalist.

Her breakthrough came when executives of Blue Note Records got hold of a three-track demo and decided to sign her on.  Her debut album, Come Away With Me, a mixture of acoustic pop, soul and jazz, reached number one in the Billboard 200 albums chart and won five Grammy awards in 2003.  The title track, Come Away With Me, reached number two in Canada.

Her follow-up studio album, Feels Like Home, showed influence of country music.  This is understandable, as Jones herself cites Willie Nelson as her mentor.  It sold a million copies within a week of release and reached number one in at least 16 countries around the world.  In 2004, TIME magazine included her among the TIME 100 list of the most influential people.

She wrote or co-wrote every song in her third album, Not Too Late, which appeared in 2007 and reached number one in 20 countries.  In the same year, she made her film debut in My Blueberry Nights, co-starring with Jude Law, Rachel Weisz and Natalie Portman.

Her fourth album, The Fall, was also her first to reach number one in the United States, although the single from it, Chasing Pirates, reached number 7 on the jazz charts.

Laura Marling

In the first decade of the 21st century, folk music may not be considered mainstream musical material.  It is surprising, therefore, that Laura Marling, born in Hampshire, England, in February 1990, won the Best Female Solo Artist in the Brit Awards in 2011.  The reasons for her success are perhaps the strong melodies and angst-ridden lyrics of her work.  I wrote a blog post about her in 2010.

Her father, who ran a recording studio, introduced her early to folk music.  Her first album, Alas I Cannot Swim, was released in 2008 and nominated for the Mercury Prize.

The follow-up album, I Speak Because I Can, appeared in March 2010 and entered the UK album chart at number four.  It shows more maturity and emphasis on the “responsibility of womanhood”, according to NMEWhat He Wrote and Devil’s Spoke are haunting tracks.

She has announced the title of her third album to be A Creature I Don’t Know, scheduled to be released in September 2011.

Katie Melua

Katevan Melua was born in Georgia, a former Soviet Republic, in September 1984, and moved to Northern Ireland and later England with her heart specialist father.  She originally planned to be either a historian or a politician, but winning in a British talent show Stars Up Their Noses on ITV changed the direction of her career.

Composer and producer Mike Batt gave Melua the break in her musical career when he signed her to his company Dramatico, releasing her first album Call Off The Search in 2003.  The lead single from the album, The Closest Thing To Crazy, had a difficult start.  It wasn’t until Terry Wogan started to play it on his breakfast show on BBC Radio 2 that its recognition gathered momentum, ahead of the release of the album in November, which eventually spent six weeks at the top of theUK charts.

Subsequent singles from the album, Call Off The Search and Crawling Up A Hill, didn’t repeat the success of the first.

Melua’s mellow and introspective singing style is soothing and endearing.  Since Call Off The Search, she has issued three further albums, Piece By Piece, Pictures and The House.  Beyond Nine Million Bicycles from Piece By Piece, other singles from her follow-up albums seem to have achieved less success.

She holds the Guinness World Record for playing the deepest underwater concert at 303 metres below sea level on Norwegian Statoil’s Troll A platform in the North Sea

Joss Stone

Born in April 1987, Jocelyn Eve Stoker, otherwise known as Joss Stone, was 17 when she hit the headlines with her debut album Soul Sessions, which made the Mercury Prize shortlist in 2004.

Her distinctive style combining soul and funky a la Aretha Franklin is not surprising, as Franklin was one of her idols.  She readily admits that Aretha Franklin: Greatest Hits was the first CD she owned.

In 2001, at the age of 13, Stone took part in the BBC TV talent show Star for a Night in London, eventually winning it with Donna Summer’s 1979 hit On The Radio.  She caught the attention of S-Curve Records founder and CEO Steve Greenberg, who signed her on in 2002 and released Soul Sessions in 2003.  The album reached the top five in the UK charts and the top forty of the US Billboard 200.

As the material in Soul Sessions is mostly covers, Stone sometimes calls her second album, Mind Body & Soul, her “real debut”.  It proved to be an even bigger success than Soul Sessions, breaking into the UK charts a number one, enabling her to break Avril Levigne’s record of being the youngest female to reach the top of the UK album charts.  The album produced her biggest hit to date, You Had Me, which reached number nine in theUK.

Although her third studio album, Introducing Joss Stone does not seem as successful as her first two, it nevertheless debuted at number two in the US, unseating Amy Winehouse as the highest debut on the US charts by a British female solo artist.  The lead single, Tell Me ‘Bout It, reached number twenty-eight in theUK.

Stone apparently wrote and recorded her fourth studio album, Colour Me Free!, in a week in Devon, where she spent her teenage years, but a dispute about its cover eventually ended with her leaving the EMI label.

Amy Winehouse

Since her passing in July, details about Amy Winehouse’s troubled 27-year life have been well celebrated.  Although her output consists of two studio albums only, she remains one of the most talented female singers to have emerged in the last decade.  Her idiosyncratic mix of musical styles and uniquely powerful voice have earned her numerous awards, also making her the first female to win five Grammys.

Apart from a distinctive musical style, Winehouse also sported instantly recognisable hairstyle and makeup, traceable to Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes from the 1960s.

Winehouse’s second studio album, Back To Black, was more successful than her debut Frank, and produced more widely recognisable singles, such as Rehab, Back to Black and You Know I’m No Good.  Was the video for Back to Black showing a funeral prophetic?

Several of her peers, including Adele and Lady Gaga, credit Winehouse’s success for making it easier for them to break into the market.  It was as if she made unconventional style for female artists acceptable.

Winehouse clearly overstepped the limits of acceptable behaviour even for the worst rock stars, bungling live performances and just generally making a messy spectacle of herself in public.  Now that she’s dead, I prefer to remember the tremendous music she brought to us.  Rest in peace, Amy.

From Adele to Winehouse, a crop of female talent in the last decade has challenged the musical standards of their predecessors in the history of pop and rock, and raised the bar significantly for their successors.  Is it really true, as the Guardian claims, that men can’t do pop any more, and would it matter if it was true?

Hugh Sheridan in Newley Discovered at Sydney Opera House June 24, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Music, Pop and Rock.
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Singer, songwriter and popular entertainer Anthony Newley was not a musical genius, but with no knowledge of music theory, he left behind a body of works that would put many a formally trained composer to shame.  Although I never saw him live in performance, I suspect what set him apart was his ability to connect with the audience.

Newley Discovered,a one-man chronological account of Newley’s life told through a compilation of his most popular works, debuted in the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in 2009.  It’s intimate, but not overly cosy, and the Sydney Opera House Playhouse was the perfect setting for it.  As soon as he stepped onto the stage, Hugh Sheridan engaged the audience directly and established strong rapport with the trio supporting him.

For a little over an hour, Australian actor Sheridan, known for his role as Ben Rafter in the TV series Packed to the Rafters, slipped comfortably into the role of Newley, eliciting smiles from the audience with clever one-liners.  Young for the role at only 24, he showed maturity and wisdom far beyond his age, switching from flippancy to melancholy with ease, telling the story of a life marked by tortuous excesses and personal tragedies typical of the early baby boomer generation of entertainers.

The show charts Newley’s rise from humble beginnings in East London to acceptance by demanding audiences in Hollywood and Las Vegas.  In his birth certificate, his mother’s name was “Grace”, and his father’s name was…”blank”.  Growing up with an accent that would appear to count against his chances of a theatrical career, he entered the acting profession through the backdoor, as an office boy in the Italia Conti Stage School, in which he could not afford to study.  His breakthrough came when David Lean cast him as the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist in 1948.

Surfing the wave of rock and roll in the 50s, he went almost to the top of the UK charts with I’ve Waited So Long.  Together with Leslie Bircusse, he penned and starred in the musical Stop the World – I Want to Get Off.  Bircusse was to be his partner in many other productions, including The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Although often introspective and contemplative, especially when dealing with the tragedy of his first born child who died of a congenital condition, Newley Discovered examines the tumultuous events of the singer’s life without pathos.  In fact, the many playful and clever one-liners that intersperse the songs highlight his ability to turn whatever life has to offer to something good.  Sensing that he is losing his battle with cancer, he says, “I didn’t want to die, but nobody else could do it for me.”

That Sheridan sings well is a delightful surprise.  He follows the footsteps of Some Mothers Do ‘ave ‘em star Michael Crawford in forging a musical career, releasing his first album Speak Love towards the end of 2009.  With his mildly husky voice, he sauntered through most of Newley’s important hits during the show, from What Kind of Fool Am I at the opening, to the theme tune for the movie Goldfinger, the popular hit Candy Man, and On A Wonderful Day Like Today.  Yet his acting instincts were the ultimate triumph of the evening, when he mimicked the mannerisms of Sammy Davis Jr in Candy Man.

Like many popular entertainers who find it hard to resist the calling of their libido, Newley was married three times, and had many other companions beyond these relationships.  Diana Carroll of the Independent Weekly says that Newley “might be best remembered as Mr Joan Collins”.  Although he was quite smitten with Collins, he was less keen than she was on marriage.  Despite his reluctance on commitment, romanticism got the better of him.  Collins gave him an ultimatum in Central Park for a reply within a week, but Newley “didn’t need a week”, and gave her the answer the next day.

Newley Discovered is a little gem worth exploring – enjoyable light entertainment on a well-earned evening out.

Easy listening is lazy listening when it comes to Harry Connick Jr. April 5, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Pop and Rock.
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I’m a late comer to the music of Harry Connick Jr.  I had heard his name often, and had been aware that some considered him heir apparent to Frank Sinatra, but I had never bothered to find out what his music was like, until recently.

After all, I thought, Michael Bublé was the true heir apparent to Sinatra, and his records had been on the charts far more often than Connick’s.  Furthermore, I had heard Bublé live by pure coincidence in a Manhattan bar and grill.  It was standing room only, and I stood all the way.

Connick’s latest CD Your Songs is listed in the Air Canada in-flight entertainment programme as “easy listening”.  I often wonder what easy listening means, as opposed to other types of “hard listening” music.  Since the flight was not long enough to do much else, and most of the music in other genres was eminently unappealing, I decided to give him a try.

As far as I can tell, Your Songs consists purely of covers, and no original material.  The opening track, Sinatra’s All the Way, is followed by Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are, the Beatles’ And I Love Her, the Carpenters’ Close to You, Your Song by Elton John and, among others, Nat King Cole’s Mona Lisa.

Covering other artists’ material in itself does not mean that the effort has no creative value – even “hard listening” artists have tried their hands at covering material of another artist, another genre, or another era.

Linda Ronstadt broke new ground collaborating with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra in What’s New in the 80s, and Rod Stewart set new standards for the full gamut of the classics in The Great American Songbook.  Black Sabbath front man turned reality show superstar Ozzy Osbourne released Under Cover a few years ago; as did Bette Midler a collection of Rosemary Clooney songs.

Peter Gabriel’s latest release Scratch My Back probably ranks among the most interesting cover project to date.  According to his web site, this is “a very personal record with the twelve songs performed only with orchestral instruments and voice”.  The project is a “song swap”, in which the next phase involves each of the original artists whose songs Gabriel covers performing one of his in return.

The mark of true artists is that even when covering someone else’s material they bring an interpretation uniquely their own.  Ronstadt and Stewart both cover the Gershwin classic Someone to Watch Over Me, yet they each instil the song with such unique vocal qualities and phrasing that they may as well not be the same song.  Ronstadt never seems to be able to shake her nasal twang, and Stewart’s husky voice is distinctly well aged.  Stewart’s interpretation of Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust is far and away better than my next favourite rendition by Nat King Cole.

What about Harry Connick Jr.?  Granted, he does have a smooth voice and sing well, but it’s hard to pin down what new angle he brings to the various songs he covers, apart perhaps from sugar-coating them until they blend into the background.  All the tracks on Your Songs are so watered down and evenly paced that they don’t command a lot of attention.  Somehow something is missing.


The whole point about an artist covering someone else’s material is that it brings a challenge to our assumptions about him or her.  It makes us sit up and listen.  Ozzy Osbourne certainly does that with the Beatles’ In My Life and the Mott the Hoople classic All The Young Dudes.  Peter Gabriel’s version of David Bowie’s Heroes is hardly recognisable.  Osbourne and Gabriel present a musical as well as an intellectual challenge.  To enjoy their covers, you have to suspend disbelief and view them in a different light.

With Harry Connick Jr. all you have to do is sit back, relax and take it all in, as the music simply glides over your consciousness and leaves nothing behind.  You don’t have to suspend disbelief, as you don’t know what to believe in the first place.  There is no challenge, as his smoothness is amorphous and defies description.

So it seems Harry Connick Jr. is not only easy, but lazy, listening.  It goes to show that in music, as in everything else, I do it the hard way.

Discovering Laura Marling, barely 20 but going strong… March 15, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Pop and Rock.
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