Joe Sparrow : Selected posts from MONTAG Issue 1

It’s hard to believe that in under a year, MONTAG has blossomed from “weirdo blog that Grover commissioned for reasons that are not yet fully fleshed-out” into “weirdo blog that now has a really good weekly newsletter, a remarkably coherent podcast, and a frankly stunning print edition.”

And while a huge chunk of that is down to the talent of the contributors and artists I have the pleasure of editing, I was really happy to have been able to write some stuff that I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have got away with anywhere else. Such are the joys of being your own editor, I guess.

Here are a few of the Greatest Hits* that I wrote for Issue 1: Together Tomorrow. Click through to read the full thing…

TODAY’S DYSTOPIA: Farenheit 451 Is the world that Ray Bradbury describes in Fahrenheit 451 – a controlling, authoritarian horror-show, occupied by puppet-humans for whom individual thought is, erm, unthinkable – actually so different to 2017?

Memento Mori: would you keep a dead relative as a VR pet?: How will we deal with death in the future – when we can recreate dead people in VR?

VR: the Victorian Revolution: how new is our newest technology? If you showed a VR headset to someone from the 1800s, they might not be as freaked out as you think…

And if that’s whetted your appetite, you can read the rest here, over at MONTAG.WTF.

*your milage may vary

Joe Sparrow : Spot the gif-ference*

*It’s pronounced with a hard “G”, I don’t care what anyone says

Blog posts that begin with “I’ve not posted for so long because…” are ten-a-penny and all boil down to three main excuses: my job got super busy; I had a baby; I’ve been dealing with some personal stuff.

For me it was, boringly, the former. But now I can breathe again. One of the things that has kept me so busy is being the editor of MONTAG.WTF , the can-you-believe-they-trusted-him-to-launch-it-under-that-name magazine of weird futurist philosophy, oddball sci-fi fiction, and terrified glances at dystopias that the Berlin startup Grover funds.

I’m endlessly grateful that the people at Grover who sign off on things have been so daring and blasé ab out signing off on MONTAG, which has now branched out into a blog, a surprisingly decent podcast, a devastatingly gorgeous print edition, and an actually-rather-good weekly email. Everyone who I’ve been lucky enough to corral into working on MONTAG is brilliant.


One thing that has given me huge pleasure is creating a series of frankly bananas gifs for MONTAG. We aimed for eyebrow-raising writing with lowbrow gifs, and I think we have generally hit that… er… benchmark? Either way, here are some of the gifs I made that I’m most proud of.

Tupac Shakur crotch-thrusting at a Victorian lady from a crystal ball for this piece on VR.

Some firemen burning books for this piece on Fahrenheit 451.

I snuck some classic headlines including “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster” into this gif for a piece on Automation and creative jobs.

Corr, just feel the width of the white-hot satire as Kim Kardashian gets inserted into a gif for a piece about dystopian futures (in this case, Blade Runner)

And I’m simply proud of this one, because it looks good  – from a piece on the storification of your own life via AR.

Joe Sparrow : Surf’s Up; or Surf’s Everywhere, all the time

I often think about how we consume stuff in an era where everything is available all of the time.

(I’ll save the “in my day” stories about straining to deduce a new LP’s contents from the sleeve art on the bus home for another tedious post.)

But the idea that we’re all increasingly skimming the surface of lots of media/art/thoughts is quite widely accepted now, and I’ve written about Breadth Vs Depth before.

Maybe what bugs me about accessing everything, always is that it’s clearly what we instinctively want — a little sample of everything in preference to deep knowledge of a little.

It’s mirrored elsewhere in non-tech, non-#disrupted places: in Chinese All-U-Can-Eat buffets, where the temptation of a two course meal is outweighed by a taste of everything; or in The Week, a magazine compiling newspaper snippets — a kind of low-pass news filter which is kinda-useful but also removes extremes, readability and personality.

And just because, as animals, we’re drawn towards more, and more frequently, it doesn’t mean it’s the better life experience.

At the end of the summer, I found myself sitting on a beach in Portugal with my good friend Alex, who — along with another friend Sab — forms the brilliant Portuguese band Youthless.

(Alex is also known as Tiappa, depending on how you are related to him. This is also another story for another time.)

Anyway: Alex/Tiappa loves surfing, and the beach was in Ericiera, one of Europe’s surf capitals.

In the still-hot September sun, and as Gem slept pointedly in between us, we chatted about life, philosophy, and the various merits of the amazing local prego no pao sandwiches, all interspersed with the kind of childish penis jokes you only risk in the company of trusted friends.

As we talked, Alex gazed at the sea, watching a couple of surfers trying to ride a lacklustre wave. He couldn’t fully pull his attention away: the lure of the sea is bone-deep* and he’s a happy addict.

Over a couple of hours, one surfer rode a difficult, lazy wave only a few times, and Alex critiqued him with a mixture of appreciation, jealousy, and what I guess is the universal surfer reflexive of: “I could do that a bit better.”

Later, we sat in a surfer joint, and the TV behind a kitsch wave-shaped bar showed an endless highlight reel of surfers catching giant waves; hardy souls bulletting down sheer walls of unimaginable heft, and eventually wiping out in a mess of boiling white foam.

We all stared, hooked. Surfer after surfer, wave after wave. Each clip was a few seconds long. Just the exciting bit, money shot after money shot: surf-whoosh-splash.

Alex watched both intently. One was long and intermittently-rewarding**. The other was all-killer-no-filler, and offered rigidly repeated hits.

Which one offered the better life experience, in the long-term?

Which one made him long harder*** for the sea?



*yes, this is the calibre of penis joke we were making

**this too


Joe Sparrow : ALBUMMED

The Album is Dead. No, really, it is. Everyone’s saying it.

Just this week, Taylor Swift’s label proved how deader-than-disco the album is, first by refusing to allow her new album on Spotify, and then by stroppily pulling the rest of her collection from the service.

Newspapers said that she was, “Taking a stand against streaming revenues.”

She wasn’t.

Actually, by acknowledging that she’d make more money in the first few weeks by flogging CDs and downloads at $8+ per unit, she was hammering the last few nails in the coffin of the old album system.

Look, people aren’t stupid – even though the recording industry cartel treated us as such for decades – and the reason why people want to stream stuff and not buy it is obvious: why pay a lot for one thing, when you can get more of it, more easily, for cheaper?

Yet Taylor Swift has proven that at the highest level, the old mindset prevails – get ’em to pay the old amounts for the album. We’ll make millions!

And why not –  it’ll work, for a bit, for artists the size of Taylor Swift. She’ll sell a million LPs – to parents of kids who want the album, or to obsessives, or to people uncomfortable/unaware of streaming.

Meanwhile, the rest will wait for her album to pop up on Spotify in a few inevitable months, and in the meantime, they’ll watch “Shake it Off” on Youtube – the biggest streaming platform which generates less money per stream than Spotify – and then will go and stream Lorde’s album or something instead.

I’m more concerned about what an album is, and what it means if it actually is dead.

Which, err, it isn’t.

Besides wondering what happens to the, “what was the first LP you bought?” conversations, the Death Of The Album postulation has all sorts of other problems with it.

Will the majority of people buy LPs in the future? No. Will they just want playlists of their #fave #bangers?

Yes – just like they always have. That’s why the Now! That’s What I Call Music CDs always sold zillions, and why mixtapes are still a thing.

Album buying will be a large-niche activity for ten thousand, discrete, intimate reasons which will never be satiated by a Spotify playlist.

Here are two of them.

1) Teleportation. Whenever I listen to Underworld’s “Second Toughest In The Infants” – which I listened to a lot when I lived in New York City – I’m instantly and viscerally yanked back to the cold winter streets of Greenpoint’s grubby tip; and I can feel my hands pulling the collar of my ludicrous red dress coat close to my lips against the dry, biting air.

Malcolm McLaren’s “Duck Rock” teleports me back to hanging around on the Subway stations of the G Line.

Primal Scream’s “Vanishing Point” plops me back into the hot summer of 1997, vibrant with teen energy.

And so on.

2) True understanding. The difference between digging into an album and simply adding songs to a playlist is the difference between owning a volume of poetry and enjoying a single poem.*

I never liked Sarah Lucas‘ art. My friends at art school thought she was a genius.

Meanwhile, I struggled: she was the YBA I Couldn’t Figure Out. I got her work. I admired it. But I didn’t love it.

And then, a few months ago, I saw her retrospective at the Whitechapel gallery in London.

And there it was, piece after piece, filling the room: sexually-charged penis sculptures flopping against concrete sofas; sinewy sculpture shoved up next to stained matresses; teak tables supporting limp, cold fried eggs; thick grease smudging graphically obscene wallpaper.

Hits mixed with album tracks. Killer next to filler. Pop classics rubbing up to odd misfits.

The show made her ideas blindingly obvious for the first time. In a context she had invented, pushing it all into one space. It all made sense.

*I loathe poetry, but a metaphor is a metaphor

Joe Sparrow : The Kids are all right

Idly spooling through products on Amazon, trying to find something cheap to make my order up to £10 and thus claim free delivery, I felt a weird flashback.

“Ten years ago,” it occurred to me, “I would choose a bunch of CDs online, click ‘order’, and wait four days for them to arrive.”

“How gauche,” I thought.

What was most odd about this recollection was that I didn’t even consider the ten years or so before that, when the act of finding and purchasing music meant that I – a wan teenage schoolboy – would walk to Mike Lloyd’s record shop after school, and physically flick-flack through CDs.

I could afford about one a month. CDs were about 15 quid.

Thus I only very occasionally gambled on an album because of the cover, or an odd band name; on the whole, I went by the reviews in the Melody Maker.

Looking back, I can see that a lot of the emotion I have amassed for LPs released around that time was invested in the subsequent walk-up to the counter.

I’m about to spend all this money on this CD I haven’t heard: what if it’s only a 6/10?

Those days are so far gone, I don’t even reminisce about them any more.

This is what progress really feels like, fifteen years on: nothing at all.

Last year, for a day a week, I taught a hundred-odd 18-year old students on a Music Business course.

The lessons were a two-way street: I revealed how much money they will realistically make in comparison to their feverish rock star/yacht-moored-in-Ibiza dreams, and they opened my eyes to how kids their age regard music.

It was great fun, and extremely bracing work; although sometimes I wondered if we were a mutual focus group established to cause each other occasional twinges of disappointment.

So how do #teens find music now – and what do they use to listen to it?

Well, the latter question was easy: they use Youtube and Spotify, and that’s it.

None – literally none – choose to listen to music radio even once a week, although some admitted that they tell people that they do.

None pay for Spotify. Some pay for bonus editions of LPs they‎ already like.

And how do they find the music in the first place, in an era of ubiquitous, instant album reviews that cost nothing to read and are written for nothing?

Generally, they all mumbled a bit about “Facebook” and “recommendations from friends” but none had a really firm, tried-and-true method.

Some thought they might have used Spotify playlists now and then, but on the whole all of them voiced what felt like a collective shrug – as if even they didn’t know how they discovered music.

Is it possible to enter a post-music-discovery age? Will careful pondering and considered exploration go out with a whimper?

Or are they being induced to listen to new music in a brand new way, so subliminal, so sneaky, so in tune with now that they – and the rest of us – haven’t even noticed what it is yet?

Is this what progress feels like whilst it’s happening: nothing at all?

Joe Sparrow : Why I (almost) killed A New Band A Day

When I started ANBAD, I wanted to do two main things, and they were both essentially selfish.

Firstly, I wanted to rekindle the joy of new music discovery. When John Peel died, my compass through the leftfield went awry – as it did for many people – and my attention wandered without a trusted guide. I needed to become my own guide, and needed a reason to sift through MySpace – MySpace! – to find good new music.

Secondly, I realised that my initial “career choice” of becoming a visual artist may have been a red herring, and that what gave me pure creative pleasure was writing. Recognising the need to catch up quickly, I made the name of the blog a threat to my own fragile ego: if you don’t write 250 words every fucking day, your blog is automatically a laughing stock, you idiot.

In the last 12 months, I’ve not blogged every day, and I felt that bilious twinge of my pride writhing every day that passed without a post. But I’m still not going to blog every day any more.

On the whole, I stopped the daily blogging because I achieved my goals. I found lots of good music by odd bands that never really got any bigger (which is how I wanted it, I suppose); and I became pretty good at writing 250 words of copy very quickly.

I could write a thousand words on the amazing life-events ANBAD has given me: months spent in New York City bothering the brilliant individualists at the Hype Machine, plus visits to SXSW, Berlin, and tens of other bucket-list-y things.

But really, what has given me most pleasure are the people I have met and formed deep, real friendships with. I won’t embarrass them by listing names, but unfortunately for them, they know who they are.

And this unexpected pleasure easily became the best thing about music blogging.

Back to the start for a moment. Read more »

Joe Sparrow : Music streaming, scarcity and breadth vs. depth

Enjoying the feeling of owning something scarce is a default human trait. It’s why we dumbly covet diamonds – and it explains those eyebrow-raising £200 Limited Edition Deluxe Numbered Boxsets.

It’s also a natural human trait to grab as much of it as possible.

Which of these base desires do you think today’s music streaming services sate?

As a teen – pre-mp3, pre-streaming and pre-Youtube – I used to love the tease of build-and-release that would accompany a new record release.

First, weeks of drip-fed build-up in the Melody Maker; then on the day of release, haring out of school as the bell rang to the record shop (R.I.P. Mike Lloyd’s Music);  then racing back home, reading the sleeve notes on the way, and playing the CD on repeat for the rest of the evening.

When I tell The Kids These Days about this, they visibly cringe at the idea of such limited music at my disposal, and the walk to the shops it entailed. So do I in many ways, and I certainly don’t long for a switch back to the old days.

But: back then I’d dig into an album, listening over and over, mainly because my pile of CDs had a severe supply vs. demand imbalance.

I love listening to an album for the nth time. It isn’t about looking for something new in something old. It’s about happily wallowing in something that brings joy.

The internet’s supply of music is totally counter to that old way of consumption. Now scarcity is dead, it’s easy for our behaviour to default to a land-grab of everything, all at once, whenever.

An (admittedly enforced) luxuriation in a small number of things forces a deep, narrow appreciation.

This is diametrically opposed to the skittering, grab-a-bit-of-everything approach which can – and, I believe on the whole, does – result in wide consumption, with shallow understanding.

The danger is assuming that ‘narrow’ in the first instance is bad; and ‘wide’ in the latter is good. More is better!

Is more better? Do we lose something? Doesn’t it mean that we have less depth of understanding? Isn’t less bad?

I’m sure there’s a way for the internet still fulfil the human enjoyment of scarcity. I guess that’s partly why Snapchat is worth billions of dollars.

Today, my main concern is deciding what, out of pretty much everything recorded, ever, to listen to at any given time.

What if the cost of having everything is losing all of your precious diamonds?

Joe Sparrow : Scale x Time: How Spotify Works Right Now [Part 1]

I feel like I need to write the below down, because I have to keep explaining the maths to people who ask about it, and my maths is terrible, and I have to keep checking if I’ve got a decimal place wrong (and usually I have). 

Anyway, here’s something to get out of the way right at the start:

The old way of making money via recorded music was a unique blip.

People love how Spotify gives them all the music they want for nothing. At the same time, a lot of people don’t instinctively like how Spotify pay people.

The 18 year-old music students I talk to – who were not even fertilised eggs when the music business decided that the giant, coke-fuelled advances they handed out to artists were beginning to look a little gauche – bemoan the fact that artists don’t make much money per stream from Spotify.

(Funnily enough, very few of them – less than 5% at a guess – actually subscribe to Spotify themselves. When I ask why, they say they’re skint, and anyway, don’t the ads they have to sit through pay the artists?)

The internet’s revolution has given new businesses once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to gain unique footholds; the desperate rush has meant that it has hinged on giving it away for free. If you charge money, you’re dead.

And being dirt-poor but in the race is preferable.

Spotify seems to be doing a decent job making people pay money for music again: 10M subscribers as of June 2014. Still, lots of focus is lavished on this pesky average payment of $0.007/stream. It gets a lot of peoples’ knickers in a twist.

That’s because it sounds like a pittance. And it is – if you use the old way of thinking, where an LP costs £10 or £15, and you sell a million of ’em.

Which most artists didn’t do.

Here’s how Spotify is supposed to work:

scale x time = a chance at making a living.

Here’s how it works with numbers:

1 average stream = $0.007

1 average LP = 10 songs = 10 streams = ($0.007 x 10) = $0.07 per LP play

7¢ for playing an album still sounds like a pittance. But how many times have you played your favourite LP? 100 times? How many times might you play it in the future? Another hundred?

If you’ve streamed your favourite LP 100 times already, that LP will have earned ($0.07 x 100) = $7.

Seven bucks. Is that a reasonable enough deal?

What if, after you’ve played it another 100 times, and accounting for inflation, the next 100 plays earn the artist $9?

That’s $16 that LP has earned from you alone – and possibly more than if you’d walked to the shop and bought the LP before all this streaming malarky took place.

Now multiply all those streams by how many people like the band as much as you do. Now record another LP that people love as much, and you’ve doubled your income.

That’s how Spotify works. If you don’t write an LP good enough to convince lots of people to stream it 100 times, go and record a better one.

That sounds horribly tough – and, well, it is. But that’s the new reality. Is it any better than the old reality? Maybe not, but it’s what the bulk of people want right now.

Welcome to the future. The old way of making money via recorded music was a blip.

[In Part 2, we’ll have a look at music monopolies; who it is that actually gets paid by Spotify; and why this new system is also wrong, as well as right]

Joe Sparrow : Bearable wearables

Any paradigm-busting™ tech revolution shows mis-steps along the way to ubiquity (hello, the sadly un-loved MiniDisc) but what about the mental mis-steps that pre-date the new tech itself?

A quick search for “iWatch” vomits thousands of what-if… images onto your screen, and they all seem to show a thing that goes on your wrist which looks like an iPhone screen. The curvy ones in particular look all future-y, and probably would have fitted in nicely with the concept drawings from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But. Do you really simply want the screen of your iPhone on your wrist? Isn’t that what the phone’s for?

Do you even want 100-character snippets of emails and texts and tweets and Facebook updates and Yo alerts and Snapchat notifications and Instagram hearts and Foursquare suggestions buzzing your wrist every five minutes?

Shouldn’t wearable tech – or any new tech – do something that your existing glut of tech doesn’t do?

Instead of beaming some info about which song you’re streaming onto your wrist, what if the device tried to solve a real problem – say, song curation?

What if your playlist was seamlessly, brilliantly selected for you, via the sensing of blood flow, movement, location, mood, keywords, perspiration, agitation?

What if the iWatch doesn’t have a screen at all?

Joe Sparrow : Narrow and deep: the undead album, and seeing work in context

I’m not sure what’s more prevalent right now – to point out that The Album Is Dead, or to comment on what a Cliché It Is To Point Out That The Album Is Dead.

I studied art for years. At school, then at art college, and then at university, and then at university again. When I started being interested in art, in the 90s, the YBAs were the colossuses, and I obediently worshipped at the alter (which was a big tank with a shark in it).

The one artists I never enjoyed was Sarah Lucas: I got her work, and admired it enormously. I just didn’t get excited by it.

And then a few months ago, I saw her retrospective at the Whitechapel gallery, and as the scales fell from my eyes, I was hit by the waves of enjoyment that I’d missed. I could see all her work together, in context, all subtly relating to one another; holistic, complimentary, brilliant.

There will always be a market for albums of music as long as there are people like me, and possibly like you, who enjoy a collection of work: the difference between enjoying a Sherlock Holmes story and owning a big book full of them.

What’s clear is that common consensus now agrees with the people at the top of the ladder – and they’re right, too. It’s funny how quick that happens, but the public is ruthless at moving on from one established norm to another, as BlackBerry and countless others will attest.

So, albums are, indeed, dead, if your starting point is the assumption that the outrageous album sales figures of the 90s were always going to be sustained, in which case, let’s book some time in our diaries and I’ll show you this new email thing that everyone’s talking about.

It’s more and more clear that albums are going to be a bit like like vinyl: a (big-ish) niche market. So, the Ed Sheerans and Adeles will shift a zillion albums, but for the rest, releasing an album is a secondary activity: something to put out as an added extra, like a really glossy bit of merch.

And thus, albums and vinyl find perfect solace in each other, feeding a desire for something more than one-off pop songs through a delivery system that looks, feels and smells good.

But most importantly, the continuing existence of albums encourages narrow and deep discovery: the listening and re-listening of a body of work. In a time when fast-and-loose media-consumption is de facto, this may be the most valuable thing of all.

NB: huge hat-tip to the inimitable Louis Barabbas for introducing me to the idea of the undead album :)

all posts

11The Target Shoots Next
10The Target Shoots First
23Some things I have written for Music Ally
22MONTAG: an infinite magazine

6Embrace nostalgia carefully to build the community you love (and thought you’d lost)
23Selected posts from MONTAG Issue 1

15Spot the gif-ference*

9Oasis’s “lost” third album: Forever… And A Day
28Oasis minus the fun
24Blackstar, Big Exit

25The Sandinista! Problem
28Gifting Music
6How NYPD Blue is the Instagram of cop shows
24Against The Grain: Grand Royal Magazine
9Simon Cowell, political agitator
11I thought I got a tiny glimpse into what being a woman in the music industry is like, but of course I never will
29Gray’s Papaya
5Surf’s Up; or Surf’s Everywhere, all the time

22Everything, everything
8The Kids are all right
19Why I (almost) killed A New Band A Day
4I just figured out why I love pop music…
29Music streaming, scarcity and breadth vs. depth
26Scale x Time: How Spotify Works Right Now [Part 1]
18Are Sleaford Mods the best band in the UK? (Yes.)
7Bearable wearables
4Narrow and deep: the undead album, and seeing work in context
16Super-local socialism and disappearing Diners: New York City’s cowardly rush for gentrification
15A couple of paragraphs from an email I wrote to a friend about Tommy Ramone’s death, and rock fetishism