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Norma Waterson - Coal Not Dole (Topic Single)

Margaret Thatcher, Topic Records and the Ding Dong! ding dong

In a week that saw the British news media dominated by the death of Margaret Thatcher and a social media-driven epidemic of musical novelty 'anti-tributes' to the late former Prime Minister you could have been forgiven for missing the fact that English folk music specialists Topic Records released a two-track download-only single by Norma Waterson; but they did and their timing was no accident. Of the two previously-released tracks, Coal Not Dole is Norma's solo version of Kay Sutcliffe's post-miner's strike poem and Hilda's Cabinet Band is the Waterson family's 1990 recording of a song written by Norma's late sister Lal in response to what she saw as the dubious achievements of Margaret Hilda Thatcher.

The use of appropriately-themed music to protest topical events is hardly a new phenomenon of course, with the successful 2009 Facebook campaign to send Rage Against The Machine's Killing In The Name to the top of the charts being perhaps the best-known recent example. Topic's release is hardly expected to achieve the same level of attention of course, and indeed given its relative lack of publicity it's not exactly an enterprise you would describe as bandwagon-jumping. However, the context of the release does raise some interesting questions around the 'digital vs. physical' debate, the state of the contemporary music industry and the nature of protest in the context of an ongoing social media overload.

In the days of physical-only releases it would have been materially impossible (not to mention financially impractical) for all but the largest major labels to rush-release a single within the space of a few days, but in the digital age even a cottage-industry setup like Topic's can react to events and have their product ready for sale just about as quickly and economically as the majors. Without the practical and financial hindrances of packaging design and manufacture and with no need to organise the physical distribution of the finished product a label can make a track available in your iTunes playlist potentially within hours of the events to which they are reacting. It's a process that's perfectly suited to the modern-day ubiquity of social media: in a matter of moments you can buy a track, share it, 'like' it, tweet it, make a pithy comment and advertise your ideological viewpoint all at once, without ever having to deal with the inconvenience of leaving your sofa.

In one sense this phenomenon points towards a welcome democratisation of the music industry in the digital age, allowing both the likes of Topic to specifically make tracks available for download in reaction to recent events and fans of a particular artist or genre the opportunity to protest a relevant cause (assuming, of course, their political or ideological leanings tally with those of the artists in question). Perhaps an even clearer indication of democracy in action in this context has been provided by the improbable rise up the UK singles chart of Ding Ding! The Witch Is Dead in the wake of Thatcher's demise. No specific industry intervention was required in this instance, with the track having long been available for download and languishing virtually unnoticed on the Warner Brothers' WIZARD OF OZ soundtrack album. All it seemed to take was the combined efforts of Facebook and Twitter and a not-inconsiderable word-of-mouth campaign to slowly nudge the track up the charts over the course of a week.

Rarely could a so-called novelty song have caused such widespread opprobrium as the Ding Dong! single. That Thatcher was a divisive figure virtually goes without saying, but there will still be those who were taken aback by the levels of public vitriol expressed on both sides of the political divide in relation to the song's unlikely popularity. The BBC for their part, not for the first time in their recent history, seemed totally incapable of devising an appropriate and consistent approach to an issue in which they found themselves playing an admittedly unwanted supporting role. That point aside, and whatever your thoughts on the morality of those individuals who parted with their 79 pence for this little snatch of 1930s kitsch, its popularity is a clear indication that although there is currently a distinct lack of decent protest singers in the mainstream music industry, there still exists the means to enable ordinary folk to participate in mass musical protest. If only they had better taste then maybe Norma would be in with a chance of a hit!

Kev Boyd
Northern Sky