Out of character appreciation of Calvin Harris

If there’s one thing I respect about Calvin Harris, it’s his  release strategy:
Calvin Harris, ’18 Months’: Sort of an album review…

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I’d like to make it clear from the start, it is unlikely I will ever purchase this album. To me, Calvin Harris is the British equivalent of David Guetta: constantly bombarding the charts with sub-par electro-pop music with pop starlets doing the hard work for him while he claims most of the glory and makes them just a featured artist. It’s not a Kelis single! It’s Calvin feat. Kelis!
 Imagine how cluttered the charts would be if everyone did things this way. The chart has more ‘featured artists’ than ever before, but if everyone was crediting their producer as the main artist, it would be a complete mess. I suppose we have to put up with it in this new world of music where, as I have read several times, ‘DJs are the new rock stars’, raking in millions from live performances. Who would pay premium prices to go and see a DJ live? Would it be any different from just going to your average club on a Saturday?
Anyway, back to Harris. I liked debut single ‘Acceptable in the 80s’. It was a catchy pop song and he did his own vocals. However, since then, his approach has been a bit Stock, Aitken, Waterman to me, just a production line that seems to never switch off. My dad once told me that in the Weetabix factory, the product line splits in two at the end, where half are packaged as legitimate Weetabix, and half as supermarket own-brand alternatives. I never did find out if there was any truth in that or if he was just trying to justify not buying fancy foods and this analogy has gone a bit askew but it’s as if the music conveyor belt has got stuck on one side and all of the music is being pumped into cheaply made boxes with Calvin Harris’ face plastered all over them and you have to read the ingredients to find out what’s actually in it. [Salvaged!]
Wikipedia lists 18 Months’ genres, among others, as ‘Electro House’ and ‘Progressive House’, which to me sound more like episodes of Grand Designs than music, but maybe I’m old fashioned. Yet here’s the thing, there are some aspects of this album that I…admire.
The album was released on 26th October 2012, whereas the first single cut from the album was the Kelis track, released on 12th June 2011. The time difference there is 16 months or so, whereas this time gap for most pop albums is about one week. I always wondered why bands would do this. None of your core fans are going to buy your single when they can buy the album the following week and save a pound or so by being patient. What Harris has done here, and admirably so, is release a barrage of high-selling singles, all of which were snapped up by Radio 1 listeners and casual music buyers, then finally a number one debuting album, which by this point seems more like a Greatest Hits set.
 It’s interesting to form some kind of timeline of CH releases for the past two years:
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All of that before the album release. It was incessant. You can’t switch on a radio anymore without hearing his formulaic crescendo breakdown/thunderclap. Looking at the release dates, there seems to have been a bit of a lull around  winter 2011 but Rihanna’s airplay was more than enough to keep the ball rolling.
As well as all that there was a Tinchy Stryder song that didn’t do much and a Sophie Ellis-Bextor single produced by CH that got to #49 in Russia, however ‘We Found Love’ sold 6.9 million copies (approx) worldwide, so I expect that makes up for it. (Not so much for poor Sophie).
If we ignore the fact that most of the above music is in no way fresh and exciting, CH released 6 singles before his album, all of which sold enough to chart at number one or two, then cobbled them together into an album that charted at number one. It is one of the best release strategies I can remember and has surely maximised sales. Casual music downloaders who may have bought one of two of the singles would probably have seen enough they liked to purchase the album later, to collect the set, and it would be cheaper to buy the whole album that all of the individual singles. If he had released the lacklustre ‘Bounce’ and then the album, the album would probably not have gone straight to no.1, but the album sales would have probably picked up as subsequent singles were released. Of course it’s meaningless to speculate this, as I don’t think 18 Months was intended to be a coherent piece of work where he wrote songs for the album, he just compiled the album once there were enough songs already released, and tacked on a few more (which will probably be subsequently squeezed for every penny). The fact that the album is indeed coherent and works as a whole is that all of it sounds identical. He’s got his formula and he has stuck to it.
Calvin Harris’ success in 2011 was enough to make anyone think they could get a hit if they teamed up with him but even that was not enough for sonically excellent but terribly marketed Scissor Sisters. Lyrically speaking, ‘Only The Horses’ wasn’t a good song of theirs even before Calvin started twiddling knobs and pressing the only two keyboard keys he is familiar with, and so it charted just outside of the top 10. With the song, Scissor Sisters sacrificed enough of their souls to let CH be in charge of music duties (when they are a competent band of musicians) but luckily they didn’t pimp themselves enough for the track to become ‘Only The Horses’ by Calvin Harris ft. Jakes Shears. Maybe they would have sold a few more copies that way though…
All in all this is the musical equivalent of seeing Modern Art buffs walking into the Tate Modern and wetting themselves over an inspiring bin bag full of rubbish, or Emin’s fluid-stained bed. It’s a poor product and in no way art, but if you can market it to enough people to give it value,  that, at least, should be applauded.

 

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