Friday, June 22, 2012

Poor Emily White

The fallout from a fairly benign blog post by an NPR intern has ballooned into the biggest music crit discussion topic of the week.

The fun started when David Lowery of Camper van Beethoven and Cracker posted a lengthy and detailed response to White's post, making pretty much the same anti-piracy points we've heard a million times before, but he's a university lecturer now and was therefore able to express the usual opinions much more eloquently than the average blogger or music company suit.

White didn't write anything controversial, in my opinion.  She admitted to stealing music.  She's twenty years old and doesn't remember the "good old days" when people paid $17.99 for a CD that cost the record company $0.99 to manufacture.  In other words, what she lacks in experience is compensated by her increased common sense, the result of not being around twenty years ago to be duped into thinking that CD's just HAD to cost twice as much as records and tapes because they were shiny and portable and digital, or whatever.   What she really wanted out of the music consumer industry was convenience, a music cataloging service that could be streamed on demand from her phone, TV, and computer.  That's something that she'd be perfectly willing to pay for, and it's hardly a new idea.  In the absence of any such service, she resorted to downloading and ripping CD's instead.

Lowery makes a lot of interesting points, and he states his case well.  But at the end of the day, he's defending an antiquated business model for the music industry that simply isn't working any more.  It's the 1930's, and White is saying she wants the convenience of hearing music in her home, either on the radio or by buying a physical recording that she can play whenever she wants. Lowery is saying fuck that noise, radio is killing music, support the artists by going out to a club or concert hall to listen to them play, and while you're there, visit their merch table and buy the sheet music.

I've been saying it for ten years now: electronic music artists are way ahead of the curve when it comes to dealing with the realities of the music industry.  Save for those six months in the 90's when Prodigy and Chemical Brothers were hot selling acts, nobody in electronic music has ever entertained the notion of making a sustainable income from selling their recordings.  Records, CD's, and now mp3's are promotional tools that lead to where the real money is -- live gigs and DJ appearances.  That's not to say that selling their music can't be profitable, obviously it can be.  But one cannot be a professional musician in club-centred genres by only selling music recordings.  All the sympathy tactics employed by artists who complain about their lack of income from their albums -- $1 per CD purchase, only $0.0001 for every song streamed on Spotify or whatever the number is -- are rendered moot.  Maybe a new business model will emerge where artists will earn more for streamed albums and songs.  But if it doesn't happen, they should consider streaming sites as promotional outlets for their upcoming tours.

Many electronic artists hold full time jobs (sometimes linked to the music industry, sometimes not) and make music on the side.  The quality isn't suffering, as far as I can tell, just because every artist can't devote all his time to writing and recording 24/7/365.  Many musicians need to accept the fact that they may not be able to fully support themselves by playing music.  Actors know this.  People in the art world know this.  Sometimes the big break never comes, and until it does, you accept whatever bookings you can get and work a second job to help pay the bills.  The odds of becoming a big movie star are low, but that isn't stopping anyone from trying to make a career in acting.  It's a high risk, high reward business.

One can't make a living from music in every city in the world.  Techno artists have been flocking to Berlin since forever.  In Berlin you can play a few parties every week and book international shows with relative ease since travel time to other major European cities is fairly short.  Its status as a music hub means you can also make plenty of contacts in the industry -- contacts that would be difficult to find if you were living anywhere else. None of this is possible even for artists trying to make a living in large North American cities, except for the very top tier of DJ's.  Struggling indie band #589A will probably never make enough money to pay the rent living in a medium sized East Coast city, touring once a year and selling downloads through their label's website.

And finally, what about the actual recordings?  Emily White is a Yo La Tengo fan, she paid to see them in concert but has never bought any of their CD's.  YLT responded with a humourous tweet, essentially telling her to go fuck herself, as if paying good money for concerts counts for nothing.  I'm a fan too, I've seen them in concert a few times, and I've paid money for their CD's.  I've also downloaded some of their music and didn't pay for it.  On one hand, you could say that stealing is stealing, regardless of prior support.  Nobody argues that they've supported their local supermarket on plenty of occasions in the past, so they're entitled to steal a loaf of bread there from time to time.  On the other hand, when file sharing took off in the 2000's (but especially around 2003-5, in the post-Napster, height of Soulseek and Kazaa days) I saw countless bands that I wouldn't have seen if I hadn't been able to easily download their music first.  I was far more amenable to hearing a brand new band when I could test drive their music for free without leaving my house.  There was no pressure to buy, no need to harass the record store employees with a stack of CD's I wanted to hear before deciding what to buy. If I liked the music I'd almost always see the band in concert when they came to town, and was far more likely to buy (=spend money on) their CD's in the future.  File sharing was better than any music advertising I'd ever encountered.

The key point is that just because a certain product produced a healthy revenue stream in the past doesn't mean that it will (and should) remain a revenue stream indefinitely. It's barely been twenty years since the release of the first commercially available mix CD (Billy Nasty's Journeys By DJ).  It's not as if nobody had ever recorded DJ sets before.  I remember heading down to the record shops to browse through and buy "rave tapes" in the early 90's (definitely an age 35+ thing).  You'd also see tapes from local DJ's who wanted to get their names out, or tapes from clubs and DJ's in Detroit, New York, or Chicago claiming to be recorded the previous week and containing the absolute latest sounds in house and techno that hadn't reached Canadian shores yet.  Eventually somebody realized that DJ's were big stars and there was money to be made from officially sanctioned and professionally recorded mixes. And yet, from Billy Nasty's biography page on RA: "Throughout 1992-93, so many bootleg mix tapes of Billy's were flooding the UK that they proved the ultimate marketing tool and resulted in requests for his presence at burgeoning nights nationwide".  The mix CD was a huge success (he made several more and launched an entire cottage industry) and widespread bootlegging of his sets was going on simultaneously.  Did Billy Nasty, the labels he recorded for and the clubs he played in go running to their lawyers?  Probably not, seeing how they were too busy making money.

But the business is different now.  Some well entrenched mix CD series (e.g. Fabric) are still very successful, but many artists have chosen to forego physical releases and post their mixes for free on the internet instead. Everybody has access to a computer and internet, recording mixes and and posting them online has never been easier.  Are artists really "losing" money by not selling their mixes?  Possibly.  Some artists who might have been able to make a few bucks from a mix CD surely decided that it was not really worth their trouble. And countless other artists give away their mixes as podcasts to get their names out, to get free advertising for a new release, or to promote an upcoming party.  As they always have.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Douglas Wolk schools me on Neneh Cherry

I need to start reading Douglas Wolk's Missed Connections columns every week.  Stream of consciousness reviewing is so much more fun (and much less likely to give you a headache trying to parse it) when you can tap into the author's thoughts via all the relevant audio/video links.  Imagine that, you can listen to the songs rather than try to wrap your head around the author's purple prose attempts to explain what they sound like.  And the author doesn't have to be high to write the review.  He or she can relax and just try to make sense!

Wolk's latest column is nominally a review of the new Neneh Cherry and The Thing album, but it soon finds itself looking back at Cherry's 80's career before settling into a discussion of Falklands War protest songs.  The album, entitled "That Cherry Thing", seems to have taken just about everyone by surprise.  Nobody knew it was coming, and therefore nobody was expecting to have their minds blown by a Neneh Cherry free jazz covers album, which makes it all the more surprising and wonderful when the album turns out to be great.  Wolk highlights the Cherry/Thing version of Madvillian's "Accordion", but their cover of Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream" is even better.  

Cherry's "Buffalo Stance" is one of my all time favourite songs, but I had no idea it was based on Morgan McVey's "Looking Good Diving".  Cherry even appears in the (extremely cheesy, but as Wolk points out, very much of it's time) video, miming playing lead guitar in a song that doesn't feature any lead guitar (that's the 80's for you).  But the B-side to that single, "Looking Good Diving with the Wild Bunch" is practically a demo version of "Buffalo Stance", with Cherry on lead vocals.  Amazing!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Beach House, "Bloom"

There was something missing in every review I'd read about this band.

Nobody ever described them as a shoegaze Saint Etienne.

All the talk about dreampop this, and ethereal/angelic that ... none of it spurred me to listen to their music.  I don't even remember what spurred me to give "Bloom" a try, but it may have been an offhand Cocteau Twins reference.  More likely the hype and praise for this album reached such unwieldy heights that I finally had to check out what I was missing.

But I can guarantee that if anyone had called them a shoegaze Saint Etienne then I would have dropped everything I was doing and tracked down all their albums immediately.  Slowdive c. 1994 backing Saint Etienne c. 1994, i.e. the dreamier parts of "Souvlaki" merged with the folksy, wisful, otherwordliness of "Tiger Bay"?  Yes please.

Even a google search for "beach house saint etienne" turns up nothing.  Seriously, nobody hears the similarities besides me?  The way the vocals in songs like "Wild" and "Lazuli" seem to be separate from the rest of the song, hovering over it and spreading the reverb-y love over everything, like Saint Etienne would routinely do on "Hobart Paving", "Join Our Club", and other songs too numerous to mention?  Even the lyrics could be from Saint Etienne songs.  Tell me that "our windy endless spring / your eyes are so misleading" (from "Wild") couldn't be followed by "he's so dark and moody / she is his sunshine girl" if the personal pronouns were changed to be consistent with each other?  Heck, isn't every Beach House lyric basically a variation on the mood and theme of "Pale Movie" or "Like a Motorway"?

I also might have jumped to hear Beach House sooner if someone had pointed out that the soaring guitar lines on tracks like "On the Sea" sounded so much like the ones used by Explosions in the Sky all the time. "Bloom" also makes last year's I Break Horses album somewhat redundant.  The two albums pull at most of the same strings, but Beach House have stronger melodies, far more distinctive vocals, and almost never need to rely on noise or other shoegaze (twee or otherwise) gimmicks to keep you engaged.

As good as the first few songs are, "The Hours" outdoes them all by kicking things up a notch by being genuinely danceable and featuring the most addictive chorus on the album.  Of course Saint Etienne's music was and is danceable most of the time, but that doesn't mean we can't say "The Hours" is their "Nothing Can Stop Us", seeing how both inhabit the same understated midtempo world.  And "Irene" is the absolute highlight, because every album should finish with a refrain that could go on for another fifteen minutes.  

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 10

"Exposing a mix's underbelly one stupid war at a time" - 87 minutes

I was trying to make a fairly laid back (but not ambient) mix with a bit of rock and roll thrown in.  No need for beatmatching, and nothing noisy or too weird.  It didn't turn out that way.  For most of the source material I went digging through old CD's again.  Nothing was planned out in advance.

About a week after I recorded this mix, Brendon Moeller posted a very similar type of mix for the peerless Electric Deluxe Podcast (Episode 70).  If I was going to get beaten to the punch, at least it was by the best podcast series on the internet.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Spiritualized win again?!?

My favourite album of the year so far, easily, is Spiritualized's "Sweet Heart Sweet Light".

I used to struggle with this a number of years ago.  You're running down your choices for the year's best music, and the winners are the same bands you chose in a bunch of other years.  Keeping up with new music is a type of competition, where a sea of bands all compete for your praise and attention.  Competitions are boring if you know who's going to win ahead of time.  I would also get the sinking feeling that I was missing out on a bunch of good or possibly even better music, i.e. I didn't give a chance to a bunch of albums because I was being narrow minded and obsessing over the same bands I always obsess over.  I struggled with this more in the 90's than I do now, when it was more difficult to hear and hear about bands than it is today.  Back then, I think you had more of an excuse for always falling back on your inner circle of favourite bands.

On the other hand, what's wrong with repping for your favourite bands?  I don't see Radiohead and Kanye West fans (to name two acts who have earned nearly automatic critical praise for their every move) apologizing for consistently (some might say reflexively) pushing their albums to the top of many readers and critics polls.  Or think of it this way: twenty years ago, Spiritualized were nobody's idea of a leading, semi-mainstream rock act, the kind that would have their concerts and albums streamed online by NPR or have glowing reviews of their concerts written up in the New York Times with comparisons to the Rolling Stones and the finest gospel music.  The band and their fans were a group of droning space rock weirdos in an age where grunge was king. The level of critical acclaim they enjoy today was nowhere to be seen, although the NME's early and consisten praise was something of an exception.  In North America they were off the radar completely.  So what happened?  Part of it was due to us -- the people who believed in Spiritualized and kept telling people how great they were until a broader audience started believing us.  In that case, you could say that it's our duty to keep up the narrative that they are among the very best, for example, just like Bob Dylan and Neil Young fans and critics did in past generations (also in this generation, Dylan finished first in the Pazz and Jop albums poll as recently as 2006).  They didn't push those acts down our throats because they didn't truly believe they were among the best in the world.  There isn't a single Neil Young fan who ever stanned for Helmet because they wanted to prove they could give newer acts a fair shake.

It's still a struggle, but like I said, a change in a thought process can be slow to evolve, whether it be a band's general reputation or your own personal opinions.