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One Opinion

Hey Trent, What About Me?

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

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.

You Go Girl

October 15th, 2007

I read with some interest the story on Madonna bailing on her traditional record company, Warner Brothers, and instead signing up with Live Nation as her one-size-fits-all promotional arm. I think this is great. I admire Radiohead, and others, who are making their records available for download at a user-defined price in defiance of the big labels. But I think that’s only a partial solution.

It’s great if you’re Radiohead and have millions of fans drooling for your next release. It’s not like you need the promotion or distribution. If you’re a new or unknown act, though, free music has a much lower value proposition. Sure, there are a few examples of bands putting their music on MySpace, drawing a reasonably large following, and then converting that into dollars for live shows and physical media. Those are really the exceptions that prove the rule. For every Eric Hutchinson, there are a thousand Emily Elberts. The fact is, there’s so much good music out there that building your success as an artist on the promise of random viral growth is an equally sound financial plan to spending a buck each week to pick the right 6 numbers. And unless you have a B-school MBA and a cadre of former classmates building brands for Procter & Gamble or General Mills, doing your own promotion is not a great option either. The music business still needs people who communicate to the masses. Enter Live Nation.

Madonna certainly does not *need* promotion any more than Radiohead does. Still, she (and her manager) know that if you want to maximize your audience you have to tell them you’re coming to town, recording a new album, selling T-shirts, etc. This is exactly what concert promotion is about. With distribution now largely left to the Internet, telling every passerby on every street in the world about the news is what artists really need. If promotion is going to be where the money is spent, the math whizs won’t be far behind documenting exactly how much various methodologies cost. Since promotion these days is mostly electronic based, the expense model will reflect today’s realities and not the business model of an industry mired in nostalgia for the 50’s. This should be a good thing for artist and consumer alike.

So, while I’m not much of a Madonna fan, I hope she becomes even more successful and I wish her all the luck in the world.

The only nagging worry in the back of my brain is we’ll see a Ebola-like spread of profiteering and the god awful “convenience fees” currently enriching shareholders of Ticketmaster will become the open soda bottle for a new generation of music industry fire ants.

But that’s just one man’s opinion.

Subterranean Homesick Bluescreen

September 24th, 2007

I’ve never been big to publicly support someone’s advertising vehicle. Sure, I wear logo-ed clothing from companies where I’ve worked, but you’ll never catch me with a Hilfiger or Coke t-shirt. Today, however, I’m making an exception to that rule. The promotional folks for Bob Dylan have created the coolest little widget/Facebook app I’ve seen. It’s so good, it nearly defines the whole underlying principle of why the Facebook API is such a killer thing. You can see my cynical message about the technology on my Facebook page. Or go to the TechCrunch page that gives a little more background.

But that’s just one man’s opinion.

UPDATE: Apparently this is becoming successful. Interesting story today via Reuters (Yahoo’s version) that says over 80,000 have tried this out, and searches for Dylan are up 3X. Maybe coincidence, but there’s no doubt the record company folks are being successful and getting the interest of a new generation of potential fans. Good for them…they should be doing something for all that money they suck out of an artist.

In Praise of Being Different

September 16th, 2007

You gotta love someone who brings a Marshall stack to a folk festival. It shows confidence. It shows commitment. After all, the roadies wheel those amps up on stage and you have to *do* something with them.

I was at the Folks Festival in Lyons, CO, a couple of weeks ago, and Grace Potter, with her band the Nocturnals, did just that. (Check out a review of her latest disc here.) Earlier in the day I heard a couple of great sets from Mary Gauthier and Darrell Scott. They were the kind of thing I came to hear…a great singer-songwriter up on stage with their guitar. Then, wham, Grace and some power chords. It was awesome. And it got me to thinking.

I don’t know if the person doing the booking at Planet Bluegrass did this on purpose, but if so they deserve a round of applause. Although perhaps on a smaller scale, it was just as daring as putting Stevie Ray Vaughn on stage at the Montreux Jazz Festival or Porter Waggoner as the warm-up for the White Stripes. It costs enough money to go to a show these days that it’s rare you take the chance on seeing someone you’ve never heard of before. Putting someone with a lot of talent into a slot that no one expects does everyone a great favor. The audience gets to hear something new and the artist gets exposure to a new crowd.

But that’s just one man’s opinion.

Dylan Went Electric

July 29th, 2007

All the hoohah over the “Summer of Love” got me to going back and listening to some of my music from that era. I’m not quite old enough to remember the music when it came out, but many of the songs and popular artists of that year certainly influenced my love of music. One of the albums of that year, Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” prompted me to also go back and listen to “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde”. I realized that, for all the hype about “No Depression” being the gold standard for alt-country and Gram Parsons essentially inventing the genre with the Byrds in “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”, neither of them were first. I think we can thank Bob Dylan for giving us alternative country.

In the summer of 1965, he released “Highway 61 Revisited”. The first song is Like a Rolling Stone. Although it has the Dylanesque wail that’s so familiar, it catapults this album out of the folk meadow with a bang. Future guitar god Michael Bloomfield adds a touch of raw power that had nothing to do with strumming chords or vocal harmonies. Then, a few weeks later, Bob goes electric at Newport amidst howls of despair from his acoustic fans. That’s really the essence of alt-country; the mash-up of power chords and guitar solos with the lyrics and passion already so evident in folk and country.

But that’s just one man’s opinion.

Indicazioni
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The Death of the Album

July 15th, 2007

Forty years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play. Or so go the lyrics (almost) of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. The release of that album one Friday morning in 1967 profoundly changed the music business. While musicians, and producers and record executives, certainly paid attention to the entirety of an album before that, Sgt. Peppers brought the idea that an album was a complete work of art to the consumer. Although there were certainly exceptions, most albums before that were really just collections of songs that could be held up, and sent out, as singles. From that moment forward, the concept mattered. The press started asking musicians what they were thinking when they recorded the songs, how it related to political or social ideas, or what the message was they were telling the public. Music writers became music critics, and questions about the artists favorite color were left to Tiger Beat. That paradigm became the norm in the music business for the next thirty-some years.

Enter the iPod. Similar to the mix tapes of 70’s and 80’s youth, music collections started to be more about one song from an artist or album. Why buy 10 songs if you only like 1 or 2 of them? Like a greatest hits album, you only need to buy the good stuff. This is, on the whole, a good thing. Many artists struggled to put together a collection of 10-12 good songs. There are lots of bad records out there out there with only one redeeming song. Now, they don’t have to come up with more. Sure, record companies still generally require a CD’s worth of music to release. But with the declining market for physical media, how long is that going to last? So what’s the downside to this, you ask.

Well, maybe it’s just me, but I’m starting to suffer listening fatigue. Back in the day, a few dozen new releases amounted to a good week for the record business. Nowadays, hundreds and hundreds of releases come out every week. Like one of the hummingbirds in my garden, I flit from song to song, taking momentary pleasure, but moving on in the blink of an eye. Musical content is like sugar water, supplying a burst of energy, but no nutritional content.

I still want a good album. I want to listen to the whole thing and revel in the experience. Some songs sound great immediately, but then lose their sheen. Others repulse at first, but become that grain of sand that turn into an oyster. And the occasional few start out great and just get better. I feel connected to the artist. Sometimes it’s challenging and sometimes it’s easy, but I gain an appreciation for what they’ve done. That seems to be an experience that’s just about gone in the music business.

But that’s just one man’s opinion.


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