ATN's Music News of the World: Madonna
Chumbawamba Stick To Their Anarchist Guns After Shoplifting ControversyBandmembers say that success has brought little money so far, and lots of headaches.Addicted To Noise correspondent Gianni Sibilla reports : MILAN, Italy -- Success. A strange word for British anarchist act Chumbawamba.And apparently a loaded one, too.From the recent remarks in which singer Alice Nutter urged fans who want to shoplift Chumbawamba albums to steal from large chain outlets to singer Danbert Nobacon's run-ins with the law to the criticism that the band of self-proclaimed anarchists has been dealt since hitting the big time, their world of rock stardom has been wrought with controversy."We get a lot less sleep now," said blue-haired singer Alice Nutter, speaking from the local offices of EMI -- Chumbawamba's label in Europe. The band, which spent more than a decade on the fringes (at best) of popular music, was in Italy to appear on TV as part of the promotional tour for its platinum (more than 1 million sold) LP, Tubthumper. The members took time to reflect on the trouble that their recent mainstream success has caused them since the release of their danceable, sing-along single, "Tubthumping" (RealAudio excerpt).It all began last October when Chumbawamba earned their first tidbit of negative publicity for playing a rooftop gig in Washington, D.C., which was cut short by city officials who said that a local radio-station sponsor had not filed for proper permits. It was the first of several run-ins with big government and big business that the band would confront in the coming months.The biggest controversy, however, for the eight-member politico-dance/punk band erupted last week in the wake of Nutter's remarks on ABC's "Politically Incorrect" round-table discussion show. The singer, responding to questions about the group's views on shoplifting, said that if fans want to steal Chumbawamba albums, they should do so from large chains rather than small stores. Virgin Megastore, one of the chains recommended via Chumbawamba's website that shoplifters visit, immediately pulled the top-selling album from shelves and placed them behind the counters. Other large retailers, including Tower and Blockbuster, blasted the band for its stance, though these stores have yet to follow Virgin's lead of physically removing the LPs from view."We were on a TV program, and somebody asked about our attitude to shoplifting," Nutter said. "I said that in an unequal world, where some people have nothing and cannot have luxury goods, it's reasonable for them to take from stores. In a lot of ways it's better to take from stores that are bigger, than from smaller ones."In reaction, large chain stores criticized Nutter and her band on their position, saying that no record store makes a sizable profit on a popular album, due to competitive pricing. Rather, the stores argued, it is the artist and recording company who rake in the dollars. Nutter responded, explaining that Chumbawamba is only saying that shoplifting is an unavoidable consequence of poverty and want."We've been in a situation where we had to go out and shoplift to get some things we needed, so we understand people who don't have money have to make those decisions," Nutter said of her band. Singer and percussionist Dunstan Bruce agreed with Nutter's statements. "The whole thing about that is that it's not a thing about Virgin, it's a thing about poverty and inequality of society," Bruce said.Besides, Nutter added, shoplifters are the least of society's woes."There are many companies that steal by not paying," she said. "If you take [names a corporate-owned running shoe company], they moved over the Mexican border, because they want to pay smaller wages, and people don't say, 'Oh, that's morally wrong.' But if somebody steals a pair of their trainers [sneakers], people say that's morally wrong. We think that's bullshit."So what if somebody steals Chumbawamba records? "Who cares?" Nutter promptly replied."In a totally practical sense," added Bruce, "if we hadn't shoplifted, we wouldn't exist as a band. Many of our instruments were shoplifted. When we get some money, we'll go back to the shop and pay."And despite their success, Chumbawamba say they have not seen much of the financial rewards. Not yet, at least. "We haven't seen the money yet. The royalties are coming only at the end of March," said Nobacon who, like the rest of the band, has had to answer to a backlash from fans who say they sold out. "But our attitude is that everybody should have simple things like a roof, food and the possibility of being educated."Still, there are the debts that have to be paid, Nutter added. "We have 15 years of debts," she said. "It's funny that people think that just because you have a record that sells, then suddenly you're a different person."Bandmembers' higher profiles, expanding incomes and outspokenness have not been the only issues that the rock anarchists have run up against in the past year. The band of self-declared anti-establishment punks has also had several run-ins with the law.Dressed in a Scottish kilt-like garment similar to the one that got him arrested in Florence, Italy, in December, Nobacon spoke of his most recent confrontation with police.Stopped by Italian cops for walking around in a skirt during the Italian leg of Chumbawamba's tour, Nobacon was unable to produce a passport and was detained at the police station for six hours. "It was very irritating, but I can laugh at it now," he recalled. "Actually, I was arrested twice before in England for shoplifting, and nobody ever asked me about that. I was already in Chumbawamba. But nobody knew. They stopped me because I had a skirt. And that shows how small-minded the police are in Italy."So what does the band make of all the attention, good and bad? "For 10 years nobody noticed us, so now it seems reasonable for us to think that if everybody wants to talk to us, we can say what we wanna say," Bruce said. "We want to provoke. In a personal sense, we're not looking for attention, because to have suddenly the spotlight on you is not pleasant. Maybe [U2 singer] Bono likes it, but for us it doesn't attain (sic) with our lives. But we accept this attention, and we think we should use it to go against rock 'n' roll traditions.""And we want to have a good time," Nutter added."Our ideas will last longer than us anyway," Bruce concluded.***Madonna Reinvents Herself As Queen of Electro-PopBack with an extraordinary album, Ray of Light.Addicted To Noise Editor Michael Goldberg reports : "We're gonna carry those sins on our back," sings Madonna. "Don't want to carry [them] any more."The song is "Swim," an extraordinary five-minute piece of electronic pop that will appear on the mega-star's upcoming album, Ray of Light, due out March 3. Beginning with a rock 'n' roll guitar intro that brings to mind The Verve, "Swim," like many of the songs on the album, rides on a funky techno rhythm and features dub-style production courtesy of the album's producer, William Orbit.Approximately 70 minutes in length, Ray of Light features 13 songs, most of which find Madonna combining classic pop vocals and melodies with state-of-the-moment techno soundscapes. Like much of the musical work Madonna has done in the past, Ray of Light is about freedom, love and following one's heart.It appears that Madonna has found in producer William Orbit a late '90s Phil Spector. Orbit has crafted breathtaking tracks. Weird, alien sound-effects float through many of the mixes. During the ballad "Power of Good-bye," strings well up, then are abruptly dropped out, leaving only the sound of an acoustic guitar. In that song, which is set to a slow, reggae rhythm, Madonna sings to a lover she is leaving: "Your heart is not open/ So I must go/ The spell has been broken/ I love you so/ Freedom comes when you learn to let go." The song is built around the line "There's no greater power/ Than the power of good-bye."Orbit is an acclaimed ambient/dance producer and remixer who, in addition to previously working on such Madonna tracks as "Erotica" and "Justify My Love," has remixed the work of Peter Gabriel, Olive, Prince, Depeche Mode, Blur, Kraftwerk and Human League. Reinventing Madonna seems to fit right in with something Orbit said in a New Musical Express interview at the dawn of the '90s: "Actually the more plastic and manufactured a pop star is the greater the temptation is to work with them and do something really out of order."What Orbit has done at Madonna's behest is create a fresh, of-the-moment sound that will fit on modern-rock and pop radio, in the dance clubs and raves and on MTV.In addition to the heavy electronic emphasis, the album incorporates striking rock-guitar. "Power of Good-bye" includes a jaw-dropping weird, trebly guitar bit, while "Swim," "Candy Perfume Girl" and the first single, "Frozen" (due for release to U.S. radio next month), all include cool rock-guitar at various points.The title track, "Ray of Light," is a late '90s up-tempo disco affair that kicks in with a hard, techno intro. But make no mistake, this is dance music informed by all that has happened between the demise of Studio 54 and the triumph of Prodigy who, by the way, record for Madonna's Maverick label. As previously reported, Madonna asked Prodigy mastermind Liam Howlett to produce this album, but he said no. "Yeah, Madonna asked me to produce her album," Howlett told Addicted To Noise last summer. "There's no way I would even think about that. There's no way that I'd commercialize our sound. I wouldn't give our sound away. To give that to Madonna is like selling my soul to the devil. It's absolutely no good."But with Ray of Light, Madonna has pulled off the truly difficult feat of creating modern, relevant and edgy music with tremendous commercial appeal. Ray of Light could very well become the most successful of her career -- critically and commercially.One of the album's many highlights is "Candy Perfume Girl," a playful, seductive trip-hop number that finds Madonna teasing, "I'm your candy perfume girl ... You're a candy perfect boy." Orbit's dub-style approach to the mix is particularly evident here, where a heavy rhythm track completely drops out at one point, replaced by an almost psychedelic Beatles feel, before the hard rhythm comes crashing back in. And, naturally, Orbit has placed groovy electronic sounds everywhere.Then there is the over-the-top sexy "Skin," which begins with a spoken intro over symphonic soul: "Kiss me I'm dying," intones Madonna. "Put your hand on my skin ... " The song then breaks wide open; it's a ballad delivered over hard and fast techo that brings to mind late '80s Depeche Mode. Midway through, there's a breakdown where Madonna's voice simply becomes part of the sonic texture as she repeats, "Put your hand on my skin ... ""Nothing Really Matters" is an upbeat dance number that, like "Ray of Light," has a disco feel. It offers one of Madonna's more straight-forward and traditional vocal tracks, yet still has a slightly weird twist. "Sky Fits Heaven," which begins with a spoken intro that includes the line, "Child fits mother/ So hold your baby tight," weds modern techno to a lovely melody.The first single, "Frozen," has already caused a stir. Released to radio in Singapore, it was placed on a Singapore website (see Music News for Jan. 26, 1998) and soon accessed by Madonna fans the world over. A Warner Bros. Records spokesperson said the company has taken steps to have the song removed from the Web.There's good reason for the excitement over "Frozen." It features simply gorgeous, ethereal vocals from Madonna over a science experiment of an electronica track and the key line "You're frozen when your heart's not open."***The Artist Angers Retailers With Exclusive Chain-Store DealSome say he is shooting himself in foot by choosing Best Buy as sole outlet to sell LP.Addicted To Noise Staff Writer Chris Nelson reports : When The Artist Formerly Known As Prince announced last year that he would only sell his forthcoming Crystal Ball collection through his website and phone-order line, Chicago record-store owner George Daniels said he wondered whether the multi-platinum singer was charting a course for simple eccentricity or grand innovation.Last week, when Best Buy stores announced that their chain would be the exclusive retail outlet for Crystal Ball, a highly unusual if not unprecedented maneuver, Daniels said he began to think that maybe the Purple One was actually heading a bit toward, well, naivete -- at least in the realm of good business sense."But then, hey, if an artist chooses to limit his own market share, that's his choice," said Daniels, owner of the independent Chicago retail-store George's Music Room and an active member in the National Association of Record Merchandisers, an organization of music retailers throughout the U.S.Over the past several days, record-store owners and chain-outlet executives throughout the country have been reacting to the news of Best Buy's thus-far exclusive deal to carry Crystal Ball, a 4-CD collection of 41 songs spanning The Artist's career from 1982-1997."[The Artist] doesn't do himself any favors by doing that," said Russ Solomon, founder and president of Tower Records. "It simply makes other dealers slightly angry. If he really cares about getting his record out there, he would want to get it to as many outlets as possible and get cooperation from the most retail people he can -- not make them angry."Best Buy spokeswoman Laurie Bauer said Monday that her company's arrangement with The Artist was technically not an exclusive deal. "What we are doing is assisting The Artist in making the product available to the fans," Bauer said. "Since we do not represent The Artist, he is free to go to other retailers. At this point, we don't believe he has."The Minneapolis, Minn.-based Best Buy chain maintains 284 outlets in 32 states. In regions where Best Buy has no stores, such as New England and the Pacific Northwest, Bauer said the company was working to secure distribution agreements with other retailers.The Crystal Ball collection, which hits Best Buy shelves on March 1, will not include The Artist's instrumental album, Kamasutra. However, the approximately 100,000 people who ordered the CD set by phone or over the Net will receive the bonus record. There currently is no shipping date for album orders placed over the Internet or by phone.Daniels questioned whether releasing Crystal Ball solely through Best Buy might hurt future releases by The Artist. "Down the road there might be a price to pay," he said. "Retailers might decide to reject his next release. I'm an independent-store owner so I probably wouldn't, but some of the other mass merchandisers might have something to say."And while some did, the merchandisers weren't necessarily saying they would ostracize The Artist next time around, either."We wouldn't pay any attention to it either way," Tower's Solomon said. "If it was worth carrying, we would carry it, otherwise, who cares? It's just self-importance on his part and it doesn't matter to us."Christos Garkinos, vice president of marketing at Virgin Megastores, said she did not yet know details about the ex-Prince's arrangement with Best Buy and thus could not comment on the deal.Frances Pennington, spokeswoman for The Artist, did not return phone calls, but messages posted to The Artist-sanctioned "Love 4 One Another" website suggest that His Royal Badness is not concerned with angering players within the music industry.When, for example, The Artist announced in late September that his NPG [New Power Generation] Records label had commenced pressing Crystal Ball after receiving 84,000 pre-orders for the set, "Love 4 One Another" declared, "This is the direct result of the xperiment (sic) in truth -- no charts, no royalty disputes, no returns, no arguing over product placement, no singles and video budgets, no egos and most of all, NO MIDDLEMAN!"The Artist released his last album, 1996's Emancipation, on NPG Records, but arranged for manufacturing and distribution through EMI-Capitol Music Group. EMI folded in 1997.Emancipation was The Artist's first release after a long and bitter legal dispute with his former label, Warner Brothers, during which he took to writing the word "Slave" on his cheek to protest an inability to extricate himself from the Warners contract. After he finally broke with the company in 1996, he began talking in earnest about releasing music directly to his fans through the Internet and phone ordering.Daniels speculated that while deals such as The Artist's arrangement with Best Buy may seem unusual now, they might become more commonplace in the future. "Who knows, maybe he's starting a trend," he said. "He might throw his next album out for bid. He is an innovator."