Specialist in: Popular music history, soul, hip-hop and rock
Neil is Open Ear’s Head of Music and resident musical encyclopaedia. He joined Open Ear in 2008 following ten years as a manager/buyer in music retail. He’s been DJing for some 20 years, performing in legendary venues across the UK. Neil is also a regular contributor to a number of music publications, and has interviewed artists ranging from Steve Albini and Ian MacKaye to Wu-Tang Clan and Kraftwerk.
"All music is inspiring, and there's not a lot of bad music in the world; there's just music you don't enjoy. Everything was made for a reason, and that's endlessly interesting. If you don't like it, you should at least try to appreciate why you don't and other people do."
An interview with Neil
Let’s start from the beginning - please introduce yourself and give us a background to your life in music...
I'm Neil, Head of Music at Open Ear. Previous to this I was a vinyl buyer and a manager in Fopp. I've written about musicians for various outlets for a long time and I've been DJing since I was pretty young too. I can't remember ever not wanting to hear music. I started skateboarding young, in the late '80s, and the American videos we would see gave us an amazing insight into all this amazing music we'd never have heard otherwise. Firstly with West Coast hardcore, all the SST bands like Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, fIREHOSE and so, and then soon after, hip-hop from both coasts. Some band that had sold 100 tapes suddenly had a global reach, even if a very select one, and in hindsight it was incredible to be privy to so much underground music at that age. It was life-changing.
It didn't take long to discover John Peel, and while it was sometimes hard to keep up with the endless schedule-reshuffles imposed by Radio 1, it was great to find a regular outlet for the music I cared about. My art teacher at school used to let me and a friend sneak out of school to buy NME and Melody Maker every Wednesday. He was an inspiration, and made it clear that there was more to life than the standard birth-school-work-death procedure. I loved hearing new music, talking about music and playing music so I only ever ended up being around music when I grew up.
Do you remember what music inspired you at an early age? And perhaps a few tracks that inspired you to start a career in music?
I definitely never planned to start a career in music. I was going to get kicked off the dole if I didn't do a college course, and the only thing colleges offered that didn't need qualifications and that I knew or cared about was music. I did a music business course, then worked in a Virgin shop which was horrible, then on to Fopp, and now I've been at Open Ear for ten years. Safe to say that music is my life but I only ever did things that I actually cared about so it worked out organically. All music is inspiring, and there's not a lot of bad music in the world; there's just music you don't enjoy. Everything was made for a reason, and that's endlessly interesting. If you don't like it, you should at least try to appreciate why you don't and other people do.
Is there one area of music you specialise in? Or a genre or scene that you are particularly close to?
Whether in a record shop or playlisting, you need to appreciate all music, so it's hard to say, in that context. I just love being able to put together the playlists our clients want, even if they don't always know how to convey their requirements. Being able to speak to them about the kind of atmosphere they want, and their outlook, is a highlight of this job and can often lead either myself or the client to music we didn't expect. Half an idea about what they want their space to sound like can often lead to some really interesting conversations about what it actually should sound like, which could be quite different from the initial brief. When I'm DJing I'm usually playing hip-hop, dub, dancehall and European and New York post-punk and electronics.
What are your favourite places, sources, sites, radio shows or people to discover new music from?
That's honestly hard to answer. Music is everywhere, so you can hear something unexpected or new wherever you are, whether it's from a friend, in a club, in the back of a taxi or a doctor's waiting room. It's really a case of paying attention to what's going on around you directly, and broadly speaking, culturally. I don't really enjoy reading about music anymore; I like learning about musicians, producers, labels and so on, but as the saying goes, writing about music is like dancing about architecture. We're all in a position where we can actually listen to the music now, rather than reading the opinion of a person we don't even know and trying to imagine it. I'm enormously grateful for the incredible knowledge passed on to me from record shop colleagues and customers, and for the opportunity to spend so many years hearing music I would never have heard otherwise, but there's still an endless amount of music out there that I've never heard, so to try to pick a starting point would be pointless. It often seems the most interesting stuff comes from the strangest of sources.
Talk to us about your approach to music playlist curation. Do you have some key do's and don'ts?
All clients are different, so there are no hard and fast 'rules' that apply across the board. I think a significant change I've seen in the last few years is people's enthusiasm for music beyond the here and now. With the history of music now being available to everybody, it's no longer the case that 'new' equates to 'good'. People can find what they like from over one hundred years of recorded music and no longer need the charts to guide them, so mixing current music with older stuff, familiar or otherwise, is important for a lot of clients and playlists. Being able to spot the good stuff, the stuff that people who have never heard it are going to enjoy, definitely comes from twenty years of being around music that I haven't necessarily chosen. Everybody knows the music they like is great, but there's so much else. There's stuff you haven't heard that will blow your mind, so seek it out. Go down a YouTube wormhole. Listen to music you don't think you like sometimes. See what you find.
How is playlisting for brands different than playlisting at home or for personal listening?
The music I listen to in my own time, when I'm not playlisting or DJing, can be a lot less specific than when I'm working with a brand! It very often has swearing in it too, which isn't something that suits many brands... I redo the playlists on my phone all the time, and just chuck in whatever I'm into at the time, with no real emphasis on whether I'll still want to hear that in a week, which is very much the opposite of how I work with brands. That said, I always make sure certain albums are there. You never know when somebody is going to ask you to plug your phone in and play something, and the Traktor app is very useable. Of course when I'm playlisting for a client, I'm thinking about the shape and size of the space, what the people in it are doing, how long they're expected to stay, how much they're expected to spend and whether they're there all the time or just occasionally. Every client is different and have different music needs.
What are your thoughts on computer algorithms shaping the future of music curation?
They shouldn't be shaping the future of music curation at all, and I don't think they will. The technology exists, somewhat, but now that almost all music is available to everybody with an internet connection, there's a higher bar. People know what they like and it's unlikely to all be from one genre, or from one period in time. Everything should be considered on its merits, and not whether it's 60% jazz and 40% R&B or whatever. We're a long, long way from an algorithm being able to do the curatorial job of a human. There are companies that take a fee to get music pushed into certain charts and playlists, so recommendation software is never going to be accurate or genuine, and I'm sure it's going to be further influenced by revenue streams in the future.
Tell us more about the clients you’ve worked with using the Open Ear platform. How did you meet the client’s expectations?
I've really enjoyed working with Dr Martens recently, in the UK and Europe. They're a brand that have always been cool and credible and they've never changed what they do. They'll release limited editions and collaborations, and they have exciting new artists playing in their stores, but ultimately they make a handful of timeless, classic, cool shoes. The core of the brand, the thing that gave them the credibility and longevity, is really easy to define, despite the appeal being hugely cross-generational. Their musical identity reflects all of this; the eras throughout history where DMs made their mark, up to right now, all laced together with an appreciation for and respect of the countercultures that have adopted the brand as their own throughout some of the most exciting years in music history. A respect for the brand identity and knowledge of their legacy - and future - makes playlisting for Dr Martens a lot of fun, and it helps that I get to playlist a lot of music for them that wouldn't otherwise get an airing. They employ great people, and the staff feedback is always a pleasure to receive, especially since the stores genuinely care about their local music scenes. So for instance, the Manchester store will have quite a different playlist to a store in somewhere like Dusseldorf.
Similarly, I have the pleasure of being able to playlist a very different selection of my favourite music for Browns Fashion. Music for bricks-and-mortar fashion retail is vitally important right now, with the emphasis so firmly on the customer experience, and brands keen to draw consumers to their physical stores rather than offering entire collections online, so very specific music is often required to accentuate the offering, season after season. Whether it's for steel-toed 18-hole Dr Martens or cotton 'n foam Balenciagas, brands and consumers now are right to demand that their whole shopping experience is designed especially for them, and it's what keeps my job exciting.