Archive for January, 2008

Good Old Hunter

Friday, January 25th, 2008

As long as I’m ranting about the music business, I should relay the famous quote from Hunter Thompson.

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.

But that’s just one man’s opinion.

Hey Trent, What About Me?

Friday, January 25th, 2008

A couple of weeks ago there was a mini snit that fermented over an interview with Nine Inch Nails lead man Trent Reznor.  CNET reported Trent was upset that less than 20% of the people who downloaded a free Saul Williams record he produced were willing to pay the $5 price for a higher quality version.  Later, blog posts were exchanged in anger over whether Trent was actually disappointed or simply expressing a general viewpoint that few people these days willingly pay for music.  This, of course, is part of an even bigger story that started with Radiohead’s release of their album on a pay-what-you-will model.

In a similar vein, there was a pretty good article in Wired last month featuring an interview with David Byrne.  In it, David lays out 6 business models for today’s artists trying to survive in the digital age.  They range from the proverbial 360 deal where an up-and-coming artist gives a piece of their soul, er, I mean, of all their earnings in exchange for a full slice of the label’s promotional might, to the true indie model where the artist does everything.  To his credit, David has clearly given a lot of thought to this issue and explains there’s no one right model for various reasons, not the least of which many musicians simply aren’t, or don’t have the desire to be, businessmen.

What all of these discussions have in common is they’re debating the best way to distribute music.  They all assume a black and white world divided between people who want their music and those who don’t.  Therefore, if you’re not buying music, you’re stealing it.

Now, I suppose if you’re David Byrne, music probably just finds you.  I suspect he gets more music samplers, demos, and just plain free copies than he can listen to.  Good for him.  I can’t seem to get life to work that way for me, though.  I have to nag friends, surf MySpace, read reviews, and just generally dig to find new music that appeals to me.  Even then, with all the resources available on the web, I still have to use either a low-fi 30 second sample or “steal” a song to actually hear it before I buy it.  Either that or just take the plunge, buy it, and hope I’m not disappointed later.

This is where the whole music industry has failed me.  I don’t just buy a song, I usually buy the whole record.  If the artist has a reputation as a good performer, I’ll go see them live.  And I don’t go alone to a show, I take my wife or go with friends.  And then I tell other people about a good show or a good record.  So if the artist produces something I like, I’m going to drop or directly influence purchase of well over $100 worth of their product.  For all but the hugest bands, that means in a country of 300 million people the artist only need a few thousand of me to make a living.  And yet, I have to “steal” music if I want to hear it before I buy it.

I know I’m not the only one with this problem.  What we need is for the music industry to realize that back in the day record stores didn’t just sell music, they enabled customers to buy something after they heard it.  Sure, we all bought stuff on reputations and recommendations of friends, but we had a choice.  It’s time the creative geniuses in the music business emerge from their narcissistic cocoons and figure out how we can listen to music again before we buy without the RIAA labeling us digital terrorists.

But that’s just one man’s opinion.

Top 10 Shows of 2007

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2008

It seems hardly responsible to not join the ranks of bloggers listing their favorite albums of 2007. I’m going to tack a bit, though, and instead list my favorite 10 performances of the year. It’s not that I see so many events I can pick the best 10, but rather that I had a good festival year and with sometimes dozens of groups at a big festival I have plenty of sets to choose from. So don’t take the word “show” too literally.

10) Peter Rowan at Old Settler’s Music Festival. (review here) I’ve seen Peter a few times at other shows and had a generally lukewarm opinion of his live performances. Maybe it was the setting in the trees on a sunny, warm day, but he put on a really good show at the Salt Lick Pavilion. It was topped with a 20 minute version of The Free Mexican Air Force including a spoken interlude about a pot-induced dream/hallucination/trip in a WWII bomber. The <inhale><cough> punchline needs sound effects to be appreciated fully.

9) The Sadies at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (review here). One of the best things about festivals is the groups frequently take the opportunity to play songs and sets outside the usual playlist they stick to for the rest of the tour. The Sadies had parents (also musicians) on stage for several songs. The set list went from folk to bluegrass to rock to all of the above. This group has played backup occasionally for Neko Case, and she returned the favor by singing a couple of tunes with them.

8) Carrie Rodriguez at the KPIG Songwriters Festival (review here). It’s hard to believe that a couple of years ago Carrie didn’t do any vocals. Her frequent collaborator, Chip Taylor, encouraged her to take up singing. Thank you, Chip. Carrie has a great voice that accents her choice of music well. And she’s a fiddle virtuoso to boot. Those two things combined for a really awesome, albeit short, set in August at Villa Montalvo.

7) Eliza Gilkyson at the Little Fox Theatre (review here). Eliza embodies the charismatic aspect of good live musicians. Five minutes into the show she had the audience eating out of her hand. Add to that the intimate aspects of the Little Fox, and this show was everything you’ve always wanted when you go see an artist perform at a bar or small venue. She did a mix of everything from songs on her current album to compositions her dad wrote 50 years ago.

6) Joan Osborne at the Old Settler’s Music Fest. One of the things I like about Joan is that she doesn’t stick too closely to one genre. And she has the talent to pull off anything in a wide range of styles–imagine another one of her peers who could tour with the Dead. This show was no exception as she previewed several 70’s covers that came out on her new album. She made the songs her own, even though some of them were classic Motown.

5) Sarah Borges at the Old Settler’s Music Fest. Speaking of genre-bending, I was blown away by Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles. Think Joan Jett singing Patsy Cline. Or maybe the Ramones doing a Hank Williams set. Great honky-tonk with attitude. I couldn’t wait to get home and buy her CD. You can’t capture that raw, live sound of a super-tight band, though.

4) Gillian Welch at Folks Festival (other thoughts about this show). Although I didn’t do a blog about this last year, she would have made the top 5 for her performance at the ‘06 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Gillian and David are much more of a performance pair than Gillian’s records would indicate. She has such a haunting voice that even in a huge venue she can silence the crowd. Then she bursts into an uptempo, almost rock-n-roll song. I defy you to leave one of her sets without a grin and chill down your spine at the same time.

3) The Flatlanders at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. More a legend than a band is apt. I sure hope they don’t go another 30 years before they perform together. They did a set at the Star Stage that made it seem they’ve been performing together for those 30 years. Add to it Bill Kirchen as guest guitarist for several songs and it was the kind of performance that just leaves you slack-jawed.

2) Bruce Hornsby/Ricky Skaggs at the Mountain Winery. There’s nothing quite like 2 world class performers getting together and proving that synergy isn’t just some management guru theory. I can barely think of “The Way It Is” as a pop song anymore. Bruce played a song about Donald Trump for a musical he’s composing while Ricky attended to some technical issues. Bonnie Raitt played slide guitar for part of the second set. They finished with a bluegrass version of Rick James’ funk masterpiece, “Super Freak”. Most years, this would have easily made #1 on my list.

1) Los Straitjackets with Big Sandy at Old Settlers Music Fest. There are some people who really know their music down in Austin, so it’s hard to say that seeing good music there is unexpected. But this set wasn’t just the best I saw of the year, it was the most surprising. It had everything. Good, old-fashioned rock-and-roll, fabulous Tex-Mex roots music, loud guitars with choreographed moves, a big ol’ singer sliding across the stage on his knees, screaming teenage girls, and of course the masks. Wow. It was sensory overload. I can’t decide whether to find some way to see them perform together again, or simply wallow in the perfection of this one magical show knowing you only win the lottery once.

But that’s just one man’s opinion.